After decades of debate and planning, the first shovels of dirt will be turned over to make way for Honolulu’s rail transit system on Feb. 22.
The pivotal groundbreaking ceremony for the 20-mile, $5.5 billion system will be open to the public at 10 a.m. along Kualakai Parkway, otherwise known as North-South Road, in Kapolei.
"Many people have waited so long and worked hard to finally get to this point," Mayor Peter Carlisle said in a statement. "This project will provide thousands of jobs for our local work force, relieve traffic congestion and pave the way for an exciting and better future for Oahu residents."
The city has sent invitations for the long-awaited ceremony. Gov. Neil Abercrombie and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye are expected to attend.
Progress on the controversial public works project went on a fast track after Abercrombie approved the Final Environmental Impact Study in December.
After his signature, a programmatic agreement between several state and federal agencies was reached, and the Federal Transit Administration issued its "record of decision" last month, the last significant environmental hurdle for the project.
The City Council also granted the city a special management area permit, the first of many construction permits the city will need to obtain for the project.
The city awarded Kiewit Pacific Co. a $483 million contract last year to build the first third of the project from East Kapolei to Pearl City.
The project will have 21 stations in communities including Waipahu, Pearl City, Aiea, Kalihi, Chinatown, downtown and Kakaako. There will also be stations at the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus, Leeward Community College, Pearl Highlands, Pearlridge, Aloha Stadium, Honolulu Airport and Honolulu Community College.
University of Hawaii researchers reported earlier this week that the rail project and other construction projects are expected to add 1,100 new jobs to the economy this year.
The rail project still faces significant opposition, particularly in a lawsuit from the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. over archaeological surveys along the rail route.
The lawsuit claims the city did not complete an inventory survey of archaeological sites before starting the project. At issue is the Kakaako area, long believed to have many native Hawaiian burial sites. The city’s plan is to conduct archaeological surveys before each of the project’s four phases, not before the groundbreaking.
Interim city Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka has said archaeological surveys will be conducted before any construction, and the fourth and final phase of the route, where Kakaako is located, will be surveyed before the third phase. An archaeological survey of the first phase has already been conducted.
The city filed a motion earlier this week to dismiss the lawsuit. The city said the lawsuit has "not alleged any facts that would establish a realistic threat of irreparable injury to any Native Hawaiian burials."
The lawsuit, which seeks to stop construction, "has no basis in statute, regulation or case law, is based on pure speculation as to any harm, much less irreparable harm, and would require this court, both legally and from a technical engineering sense, to place the cart before the horse," according to the city’s motion.