Groundbreaking yesterday was a milestone in the battle to bring a rail transit system to Honolulu, a debate that has spanned more than four decades.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, engaged in the debate since the idea first surfaced in 1966, described it as "a long journey, at times painful."
"Believe me, it’s not over yet," Inouye said in his remarks to an audience of more than 400 observers, city workers and state dignitaries at Kualakai Parkway in Kapolei. "This is just the first segment of the 20 miles. The journey has not ended."
But the ceremony did mark the farthest Honolulu has come to establishing rail transit.
Only minutes after he turned dirt for the ceremony, Inouye’s longtime colleague, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, was thinking about the work ahead for Hawaii’s congressional delegation when it comes to financing the project.
"We know there will be overruns, and so we stand by to see how else we can help in the future as well," Akaka said.
There are no known overruns yet, according to city officials who still say the system will cost $5.5 billion. The city is still preparing an updated financial plan due to federal officials sometime this spring.
But local leaders, including Inouye, said they were upbeat on the project and financing it.
"It’s expensive. There was a time we could’ve finished this at $1.2 billion on a 90-10 basis; not now," Inouye said. "I’m optimistic. As long as I’m there as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I’ll make sure of it."
Noise from construction of the Kroc community center at the nearby site echoed in the distance as various dignitaries spoke.
"You get to see and hear the construction around here," said Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz. "It’s not just about the short-term jobs. It’s also about all the construction, all the development and all the smart growth that’s going to happen in this area and along the rail line."
Dozens of community activists protested the ceremony, and a handful yelled from across the parkway during the speeches. Leaders of the group lambasted the environmental process and the price tag.
The protesters set up caution tape 100 yards wide and had balloons flying at 30 feet in the air to illustrate the footprint of the East Kapolei station on the barren Ewa plain.
UNIVERSITY of Hawaii civil engineering professor Panos Prevedouros, who took part in yesterday’s protests, said the rail project could suffer the same fate as the city’s shelved Bus Rapid Transit system.
The Federal Transit Administration pulled $20 million pledged to BRT after it was found that city officials broke the rules by starting construction without FTA approval.
"In 2002 we had a groundbreaking ceremony and construction of BRT," Prevedouros, who twice was an anti-rail mayoral candidate. "Where is the BRT? It was defeated in the courts. It is easy to defeat mega-projects like this when the environmental process is botched. And the environmental process for this project was botched."
Paulette Kaleikini is suing the city and the state because the city did not conduct an inventory survey of archaeological sites, including ancient Hawaiian burials, along the project’s route, particularly in Kakaako. She is asking the court to declare the environmental impact statement unacceptable and to void all state and county permits.
Kaleikini has asked for a preliminary injunction to stop work on the project until the conclusion of her legal challenge. Her lawyers, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., filed the request Friday.
Circuit Court has yet to schedule a hearing on the suit. However, the court has scheduled a March 14 hearing for the city’s request to dismiss it.
"You can’t breathe without getting lawsuits," said Mayor Peter Carlisle, former prosecuting attorney for the city. "If I went one month without a lawsuit, I’d figure I was asleep."
Carlisle has said the city is satisfied it has followed the law and is confident it can successfully address the arguments in court, especially considering the FTA’s oversight of the process.
"Don’t forget how much more it cost to get H-3 done because of all those people who were filing lawsuits," Carlisle said. "All that money could’ve been going into things more productive like Kroc Centers, education, and kids and preventive programs for drugs rather than throwing it on people who just haven’t gotten on board with that which has already been decided by the public."
So far, the city only has federal authorization to begin relocating utilities and negotiating land acquisition of property along the rail route, which begins in East Kapolei and ends at Ala Moana Center.
The city will begin moving miles of power, water and phone lines around April, said Toru Hamayasu, who heads the city’s Rapid Transit Division.
So far the only sign of development at the groundbreaking site are utility lines and a partially built Kroc Center. The University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus is also planned for the area.
Developer D.R. Horton-Schuler Homes, who applauded the "courage and leadership" of local leaders yesterday, is proposing an 11,750-unit housing project in the area. The project was stalled after a 2009 court decision, but the company recently stated it will try again to petition the area from agricultural to urban development.
"We’re in the middle of nowhere," said Kioni Dudley, founder of Friends of Makakilo, the community group that was successful in stalling the project. He has said he doesn’t oppose the project, only the route.
"The city of Kapolei is sitting there with empty streets," he said. "Where is our train going? It’s going to a gymnasium out in the middle of fields. Honest to god, if it was going three more miles, it could do something to serve transportation needs. It’s being built for people yet to come to this state, yet to move into homes that have yet to be built. It’s just baloney."
Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board, said the project is necessary to realize the dream of thousands of Oahu families who wish to spend less time on the road and more time with their families.
"It’s like being pregnant for 15 years," Timson said of the project’s long road so far. "It’s a time to not only get more precious hours with our family, but also a time to keep them here in the islands because of thousands of jobs in the future. We have a blank canvas to build rail right."