A final environmental study of Honolulu’s planned 20-mile, elevated commuter rail line picked up a key federal endorsement and now goes to Gov. Linda Lingle for her review.
The Federal Transit Administration approved the final environmental impact statement, which concludes that most negative aspects of the train can be mitigated and that residents will benefit from the option of a guaranteed 42-minute ride from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann held aloft the 4-inch-thick study yesterday at a Honolulu Hale news conference. "Today is a great day. Today is a historic day," he said.
Hannemann, who had hoped to begin construction on the project last December, now has his sights set on later this year with completion envisioned for 2019.
"With the support and cooperation of the state, the final piece can be put in place, and we can break ground," Hannemann said.
Lingle’s approval is far from automatic. The governor has said she will not approve the rail line based on the most recent available financial plan for the project, which was completed in August.
She wants to hold public hearings on the rail’s environmental impacts and conduct an analysis of project cost and revenue estimates. That could take months and will not begin until the city releases an updated financial plan for the project.
"The Lingle-Aiona administration has plans to conduct a state financial review of the rail project," Hannemann said. "This is unnecessary in our view and will only delay a timely acceptance of the project."
Lingle was out of the country and unavailable for comment yesterday.
Hannemann, a Democrat who will leave office next month to run for governor, could face Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Republican, in the general election.
The EIS details the advantages of the rail project, including daily ridership of 116,300 by 2030, taking 40,000 cars off the roads by 2030 and reducing traffic delays. It also notes that several of the concerns raised will be dealt with as best as possible.
Noise from the train will be reduced with a 3-foot wall around the track and wheel skirts on the vehicles. The study says the visual impacts of the elevated track and stations cannot be removed completely, but have been lessened with architectural and landscape design.
The EIS notes that 20 residences, one church and 66 businesses will need to be relocated, but they will be compensated. The plans also call for minimizing the impact on archaeological and historical resources.
Much of Lingle’s concern about the project follows a memo from the Federal Transit Administration to the city that raised questions about the city’s ability to pay for the train. The Oct. 7 memo also warned the city that its financial plan might not be sufficient to allow the project to proceed into the final engineering phase possibly this year.
The city has not disclosed when an updated financial report will be released, which means that even if Lingle ultimately signs off on the project, construction could not occur for months.
The state began the search for a consultant to conduct its analysis of the cost and revenue estimates for Honolulu’s new rail system. The consultant that will do the analysis has not been hired yet, state transportation spokeswoman Tammy Mori said yesterday.
City Council Chairman Todd Apo disagreed with Lingle’s proposal to wait for an updated financial plan before approving the project.
The August financial plan "provides a basis for the financial impacts of this project," Apo said. "These processes need to be done in a reasonably expeditious manner."
The city also must execute a "programmatic agreement" with the Federal Transit Administration, Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division, National Park Service, Navy and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
That agreement establishes the framework for lessening the project’s impact on cultural and historical resources.
Laura Thielen, chairwoman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Historic Preservation Division, said yesterday the state is still consulting with various parties on the terms of the proposed agreement.
"There is no agreement yet. There does need to be some other substantive issues addressed," Thielen said. "My hope is that we can bring all the parties to the table to finally resolve these issues."
Under prior timetables the final EIS was supposed to be released in spring 2009. When that deadline could not be met, the release date was pushed back to last fall.
The release of the study removes a major hurdle for the project, said city Councilman Gary Okino.
"That’s what’s standing between this thing going or not going, so it’s significant," he said. "I was hoping it would happen somewhat sooner.
"Now it needs to be approved by the governor," Okino said.
The rail project has been delayed in part because the route interfered with a runway airspace safety buffer near Honolulu Airport. The city has altered the route to avoid interfering with the airport.
Even if Lingle approves the project before she leaves office on Dec. 6, the environmental review process calls for a 30-day period for the public to provide comments on the project’s impacts.
The city then will need to respond to those comments before the federal government can provide a so-called "Record of Decision," which marks the end of the environ-mental review process.
The city plans to begin construction once that milestone is reached. However, opponents have made it clear they plan to sue to halt the project before construction can begin.
The opponents are expected to argue that the city did not adequately explore alternatives that were less likely to affect historical resources or that would cost less and alleviate more roadway traffic, among other things.
Copies of the EIS will be available at all state libraries soon, the city said. A free DVD with the EIS can be requested by calling 566-2299 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.