Three of the top local news stories in Hawaii in 2015 sprang from situations that few observers anticipated would lead to major headlines — building the Thirty Meter Telescope, dodging the bullet in a record hurricane season, and public outcry over hot classrooms. Oahu’s ongoing struggles to build and finance a rail system and deal with its homeless crisis also kept those two stories front and center frequently enough to make the Top Five list of news that dominated.
Early this year, a Kilauea lava-flow threat near Pahoa receded, and several months later the dengue fever outbreak emerged as Hawaii island’s main public health and safety problem. Other big stories in Hawaii in 2015 — in no particular order outside of sports, business and entertainment — included: the failed quest for the Obama library, the high number of pedestrian deaths, the Hokule‘a’s worldwide voyage, approval of marijuana dispensaries, drownings and shark attacks, and implementation of Oahu’s plastic bag ban.
1. Mauna Kea’s telescope turmoil
Construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope was scheduled to start near the summit of Mauna Kea but work crews instead encountered resistance from largely Native Hawaiian protesters trying to prevent what they called desecration of a mountain they consider sacred.
The protesters kept a 24-hour vigil on the road to the summit for months, and police arrested 42 during two clashes in April and June as crews attempted, but failed, to reach the work site.
In December, however, the observatory project formally ground to a halt when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources violated the state Constitution when it issued a conservation district use permit before holding a contested case hearing.
TMT lost more than $1.76 million while its grading equipment sat idle atop Mauna Kea, even as more than $100 million was spent elsewhere manufacturing telescope components. The TMT Observatory International board was still trying to decide how to proceed.
2. Contending with homeless crisis
Homelessness continued to be a major issue for Hawaii residents, especially in Honolulu. In the fall, Gov. David Ige signed an emergency proclamation aimed at addressing the problem after a national study determined Hawaii had the highest per capita homeless population at 465 per 100,000.
Kakaako Makai surfaced as ground zero for the homeless problem. As 2015 drew to a close, at least 50 people remained living on the streets of Kakaako Makai despite a seeming full-court press by the state, city and service providers to clear homeless from the area.
At one point, as many as 300 people were camping in the area of Kakaako Waterfront Park and the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center. Public debate about the situation ramped up during the summer after state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Ala Moana-Waikiki) was assaulted on Ohe Street by several youths while shooting video in the area, and Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha voiced safety concerns about the growing encampment. Shortly thereafter, the city began a block-by-block clearing of the area’s sidewalks using its sidewalk nuisance and stored property laws, as well as park closure regulations. The state followed suit with a sweep of Kakaako Waterfront Park and Kewalo Basin Park.
Meanwhile, state and city officials showed evidence that a number of homeless — including more than half of those who once populated Kakaako Makai — are moving into either temporary or permanent shelters. The state and city have each also directed more than $100 million toward various homeless initiatives, in the form of housing vouchers and new transitional facilities popping up or planned for Sand Island, Kakaako, Iwilei, Waianae and elsewhere.
3. Rail construction costs soaring
Honolulu’s elevated rail transit project continued to keep many Oahu residents and businesses feeling anxious in 2015 as costs kept rising and heavy construction crept closer toward town.
Early in the year, state lawmakers spent much of their session debating whether to authorize a tax extension to keep the 20-mile, 21-station project afloat. (A few months earlier, in December 2014, rail officials had given them and other political leaders an unwanted Christmas present: a report that rail suddenly faced a $910 million budget shortfall.) Eventually, those lawmakers and Gov. David Ige authorized a five-year extension of Oahu’s 0.5 percent general excise surcharge.
Honolulu’s City Council still would have to approve the controversial extension, however, for it to be enacted. As the year proceeded and the Council deliberated, rail officials reported that costs were still climbing and that construction wouldn’t finish on time. The projected deficit now stands at about $1.3 billion.
The Council still hasn’t decided what to do. Its chairman, Ernie Martin, who’s expected by many to challenge political rival and “build rail better” promoter Mayor Kirk Caldwell for his seat next year, has pushed to cap spending on rail from that extension at $910 million. Rail officials say that won’t be enough and that such a move could jeopardize future federal funding for the project.
Meanwhile, drivers, businesses and schools in West and Central Oahu endured heavy rail construction in 2015, mainly along Farrington and Kamehameha highways. Rail officials haven’t yet awarded the contracts to build rail’s second half, near the airport and downtown. They aim to have those contracts done by this summer. Until then, the proposed $6 billion project’s final price tag remains unknown.
4. Lucky we live Hawaii this season
Divine providence? Luck? Call it what you will, but Hawaii survived a record-breaking 2015 hurricane season with hardly a scratch.
Fueled by unusually strong El Nino conditions and warm ocean waters in general, the Central Pacific saw 15 tropical cyclones from June to November, breaking the previous record of 11 in 1992 and 1994. The eight hurricanes among them shattered the previous record of five in 1994, and the year’s 14 named storms — both hurricanes and tropical storms — eclipsed the previous record of 10 in 1992 and 1994. There’s a long list of meteorological firsts associated with the 2015 hurricane season.
Hawaii watched the parade of storms nervously, but none of them made landfall in the main islands. While storm-related downpours, flash flooding, high surf and coastal inundation were felt in spots across Hawaii, damage was minimal. Last year’s hurricane season damaged 250 homes, destroyed 11 and caused millions of dollars in crop damage, thanks to a direct hit on Hawaii island from Tropical Storm Iselle.
5. Clamor to cool sweltering classrooms
As the 2015-16 school year got underway in late July, record-high temperatures sparked public outcry for more air-conditioned classrooms at public schools as students, parents and teachers complained about the steamy conditions, saying the heat made it difficult to concentrate and even became a health hazard in some cases.
In August alone, there were 19 days when temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher in Honolulu. Amid growing pressure from the public and lawmakers, the state Department of Education in September began installing portable air-conditioning units in the state’s hottest classrooms. The DOE spent $146,178 to buy 402 portable air conditioners, which so far have been installed in classrooms at 11 Oahu schools and eight neighbor island schools.
The department emphasized that the portables are being used as a temporary solution to the extreme heat, but it has already seen a sharp rise in energy use. Air conditioning is one piece of the department’s heat-abatement program, which also calls for installing ceiling fans, solar-powered vents to draw out hot air, and heat-reflective roof systems.
Fewer than 10 percent of public schools — 22 out of 256 schools statewide — have campus-wide central air conditioning, and the DOE estimates it would cost $1.7 billion to install central air in all remaining schools. Gov. David Ige has proposed an extra $30 million in bond financing for heat abatement in the upcoming fiscal year.
Star-Advertiser writers Timothy Hurley, Gordon Y.K. Pang, Marcel Honore and Nanea Kalani contributed to this report.