A federal judge ruled this morning that the city can proceed with its $5.26 billion rail project while it reconsiders alteratives to its downtown route.
U. S. 9th Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima ordered a halt of any construction activities in the final phase four of the 20-mile route from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, but did not issue an order halting construction on the first three phases.
As the result of a separate case, the city has halted construction on the project after a Hawaii Supreme Court decision in August that said it must conduct archeological surveys on the entire 20-mile route. The city has said the survey should be completed this month.
In today’s ruling Tashima said the city cannot proceed with the fourth phase downtown construction until it abides by his earlier decision that the city and federal officials reconsider alternatives of routing the rail through a tunnel under Beretania Street and reconsider the project’s impact on Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako and on traditional and cultural Native Hawaiian sites along the route.
Phase four construction was not expected to begin until 2014, city officials say.
"This is the news we had hoped for," said Dan Grabauskas, CEO and executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. "The judge’s ruling allows us to complete the remaining work requested by the court, while keeping the project on schedule. These additional studies will be completed next year, well in advance of when construction was scheduled to begin in the City Center area. Oahu residents can look forward to seeing their rail system fully operational in 2019 as planned."
Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, a staunch advocate of the project, applauded the ruling.
He called the decision “very reasonable and essentially what the city asked for.”
“It will allow construction to resume after compliance with the Hawaii Supreme Court decision, while other work will continue,” he said. “And the city can address remaining issues in a timely manner without undue burden.”
The group suing the city and federal officials included former Gov. Ben Cayetano and longtime rail opponent Cliff Slater.
Cayetano said he personally expected the ruling, but was disappointed the judge didn’t halt construction for the entire project.
"He was trying to find some equitable grounds," Cayetano said.
Cayetano said he wants to talk to their lawyers, but it seems that the city still must do a supplemental environmental impact study to address Tashima’s concerns about the Beretania Street tunnel and Mother Waldron park.
The public will have a chance to comment on the city’s findings, he said.
Cayetano said the group will be discussing the possibility of appealing to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals aspects of Tashima’s ruling earlier this year that rejected their other claims based on federal environmental and historic preservation laws.
At a hearing this month, lawyers for an anti-rail group asked Tashima for a broader order which would set aside at least part of the Federal Transit Administration’s approval of the project.
City lawyers argued that such a ruling would deliver a crippling blow to the project. They sought a much more limited order, which would restrict construction on the downtown route.
In his three-page ruling, Tashima essentially went along with the city’s request.