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Rail, schools and APEC challenge isles

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As 2011 dawns in Hawaii, three issues carry the prospect of hope or failure for the islands:

» Honolulu’s new rail system — the biggest public works project ever in Hawaii — is expected to break ground early in the new year.

» Critics of Hawaii’s school system will see their push for an appointed school board achieve success after teacher furloughs gave island schoolchildren the fewest instructional days in the country.

» And Hawaii can show another side to its touristy image — if perhaps only briefly — and demonstrate that it can be a serious place to do serious business if it can produce a trouble-free Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in front of the leaders of 21 countries who will gather in Waikiki.

There will be plenty of other big headlines as 2011 begins.

But rail, education reform and the APEC forum, individually and collectively, can move Hawaii to new and positive directions — or end up providing more ammunition to critics who say the islands can’t play in the big leagues.


Hawaii can elevate its reputation as a serious place to do business if it can pull off an efficient Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November.

An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people are expected to attend, including 2,000 journalists.

The APEC delegates, representing the 21 largest economies in the Asia-Pacific region, will be joined by President Barack Obama in his hometown to do serious work continuing to rebuild from 2008’s economic collapse.

APEC forums often attract protests, so security will be tight around Waikiki — especially with Obama back in town.

The other countries’ leaders and delegates will have their own motorcades and security. And they’ll require reliable telecommunications and efficient and hassle-free airport access and hotel operations, Kurt Tong, economic coordinator and the senior U.S. official at Singapore-based APEC, told the Star-Advertiser last month.

Most of the delegates certainly will appreciate flourishes of island culture, Tong said. But the leaders and delegates will be in Waikiki essentially to conduct a series of serious business meetings, he said.

Amid all the high-level talks, however, could be at least one highly visible moment of fun.

At each APEC forum, the leaders gather for what’s sometimes called the "silly shirts" photo because the leaders often wear garments reflecting the host culture.

In 2009, after Honolulu was named the host of the 2011 APEC forum, Obama joked that he was looking forward to seeing world leaders "decked out in flowered shirts and grass skirts." — Dan Nakaso


Hawaii’s public schools will see new leadership in 2011 with the decision by voters to switch from an elected Board of Education to one appointed by the governor.

Just when that will happen and how much leeway Gov. Neil Abercrombie will have in picking new board members is still up in the air.

The question first goes to the Legislature, which may decide that the governor has to choose from candidates presented to him by an advisory council, similar to the way he picks judges and the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. In any case, the governor’s nominees will be subject to approval by the state Senate.

In the meantime, the current 14-member Board of Education will be handling some hotly contested topics. After a series of public hearings last month, the board will vote on whether to close small schools to save money, a prospect that has ignited vigorous protest in communities from Hawaii Kai to Kalihi.

Also looming in the new year are negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract. One of the thorniest issues may be hammering out a way to evaluate teachers, in part, on their students’ progress over the course of the school year. Hawaii committed to that effort as part of its successful bid for a $75 million federal "Race to the Top" grant.

The grant will be used to try to turn around low-performing schools, boost student achievement, and assess and deploy teachers effectively. — Susan Essoyan


It’s full speed ahead for the $5.5 billion rail transit project in 2011.

Mayor Peter Carlisle remains optimistic for groundbreaking in the first quarter, possibly by March.

Three things need to happen before construction can begin.

Now that Abercrombie has signed off on the final environmental impact statement, the city needs the Federal Transit Administration, the state Historic Preservation Division, the National Park Service, the Navy and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to sign a "programmatic agreement" indicating the impact of the project on historic sites.

The FTA then would issue a "record of decision," concluding the environmental process and clearing the way for groundbreaking to begin.

City administration officials next would have to approach the City Council and apply for a Special Management Area permit. The permit is required by law to ensure projects adhere to coastal zone management policies, including height restrictions, preservation of archaeological sites and ensuring adequate public shoreline access.

Toru Hamayasu, general manager of the city’s rapid transit division, has said the project does encroach into Special Management Areas due to its proximity to Pearl Harbor.

The Department of Planning and Permitting has scheduled hearings on the Special Management Area permit next week. The permit then would go to the City Council for vetting and final approval. — B.J. Reyes


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