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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 22, 2007

Council alters portion of mass transit route

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By Robbie Dingeman and Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writers

In a surprise move that rattled City Hall on the eve of Mayor Mufi Hannemann's most important annual speech, the City Council yesterday abandoned a mass transit route that would serve Honolulu airport, and swapped in a new route along Salt Lake Boulevard.

The council refused to completely sign off on the $3.5 billion plan, however, and it awaits a final vote Tuesday afternoon.

The 20-mile route would still begin near the planned University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus and end at Ala Moana Center. It would become the core of a fixed-guideway transit system meant to serve O'ahu for decades and facilitate lucrative new housing and commercial development proposals across the island.

Hannemann, who will deliver his third annual State of the City address at 10 a.m. today, said he has no doubt that the transit plan remains on track. Hannemann's administration has supported the airport routing.

"It's done. It's pau. I don't expect the vote to change," he calmly said after yesterday's 5-4 vote in favor of the new transit plan. "I'm very confident the project is not in jeopardy."

Some residents of the Salt Lake area were overjoyed at the council's move, but others warned that it would doom the transit project to failure.

"I'm glad I was sitting down when I heard the news about it," said Grant Tanimoto, chairman of the Aliamanu/Salt Lake/Foster Village Neighborhood Board, who applauded the vote.

"I knew it was a possibility, but given all the other options that appeared to be in front of the Salt Lake option, we weren't sure it would happen," he said. "We'll be keeping our fingers crossed for the final council vote."

Not only will the route be more beneficial to Salt Lake residents, Tanimoto said, but "we believe that it will result in overall greater ridership for the system because of the great number of residents in our neighborhood."

Hannemann stressed that the approved route would only be the start of the project, and said other areas, such as UH-Manoa, eventually would be served.

The completed system is expected to be more than 30 miles long, with estimated construction costs of at least $5 billion.

HIDDEN AGENDA

Hannemann and others had quietly brokered the route change over several days to secure a crucial swing vote from Councilman Romy Cachola and avert a delay in the project or a larger political fight that could derail it.

But those closest to the compromise said crucial details had not been known to all before the vote, and that it had not been exactly clear how events would unfold.

Councilman Gary Okino unveiled the proposal soon after the panel rejected three routes that had been listed on a meeting agenda days in advance. The three rejected routes included Hannemann's original plan and two other options: one that would have extended more deeply into Kapolei and another that would have reached UH-Manoa.

There were audible gasps in the council chambers when the last of those routes was rejected, as some in the audience recalled the highly controversial 1992 council vote that killed an earlier mass transit plan.

In proposing the compromise, Okino warned that "if we don't do this, the project will never get off the ground."

CACHOLA'S TAKE

Cachola said he had met with Hannemann the previous afternoon, along with several neighborhood board members, and made it clear that he was prepared to see the entire project scrapped if it did not serve Salt Lake.

But Cachola insisted he did not know who would propose a compromise. Okino said he had spoken to Hannemann about the route several times, but had not told Cachola he would propose it.

Others said they believed Hannemann had played his cards close in hopes that Cachola would support the airport route, making the compromise unnecessary.

Hannemann said he spoke to several council members in advance and had considered various possible scenarios. But there was no backroom "deal" to ensure the results before the vote, he said.

Nevertheless, Hannemann said he was confident there will now be no changes of heart.

"I count my votes very well," he said.

'TRAGIC MISTAKE'

Voting in favor along with Cachola and Okino were council members Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia and Rod Tam. Opponents were Donovan Dela Cruz, Charles Djou, Ann Kobayashi and chairwoman Barbara Marshall.

Djou called the move a "farce" and said it would be a "tragic mistake" to approve a route that did not serve UH's main campus in Manoa.

He accused Hannemann of spreading "political pixie dust" to make the new route seem more viable than it is.

"You simply cannot trust the administration," he said.

But Hannemann said a compromise had been necessary to move the project along.

"We've been stuck in gridlock for far too long," he said.

He dismissed the objections as "sour grapes" and said internal jockeying for council leadership positions had been behind some opposition to his preferred route, to the airport.

Still, Hannemann was pleased with yesterday's vote.

"I think there was a very positive message that came out today," he said. "It was debated and discussed out in the open. We're just waiting for one more vote."

Dela Cruz said it was important to consider the project carefully, and to resist pressure that would lead to a poor decision.

"Just because I'm not a rubber stamp, it doesn't mean I'm sour grapes," he said.

PUBLIC OPINION

The council's tentative decision came after four hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of the other three proposed routes.

Makakilo resident Maeda Timson said something must be done to alleviate traffic congestion from Leeward O'ahu, and that she supported Hannemann's original proposal.

"It's no secret that we have the most horrendous traffic nightmare in the state of Hawai'i," she said. "How much more heartbreak can a community bear?"

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, said failure to approve a route promptly could make it harder to secure federal transit money that is key to the project's success.

"Absent a decision today, we will be hamstrung," he said. "Sit down, hold hands, gaze into each others' eyes and make a decision that benefits the community as a whole."

Staff writer Gordon Pang contributed to this report.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com and Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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