Vote clears way for initial transit work
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After decades of dashed plans, Honolulu is closer than ever to building a major mass transit system to link West O'ahu with the island's urban core.
In the wake of yesterday's 5-4 City Council vote approving the first phase, Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he was "very confident" that construction would begin by 2009.
"The key to this was to be willing to compromise, to be able to give something to get something," Hannemann said.
The council voted to retain a controversial route along Salt Lake Boulevard rather than immediately link the system to Honolulu International Airport.
The 20-mile route selected yesterday would begin near the planned University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus and end at Ala Moana Center.
A route backed by Hannemann would have included those starting and ending points, but would have dipped south to the airport instead of following the Salt Lake path.
"We didn't get our first choice; we got our second choice," Hannemann said.
The vote cleared the way for engineering and environmental studies to begin, Hannemann said. The council and the mayor said they expect the system to eventually stretch from West Kapolei to Manoa and Waikiki. Also still to come is a decision on what kind of technology — rail, rubber-tired vehicles or other options — the transit system would use.
Hannemann allies unexpectedly had swapped the airport link for Salt Lake Boulevard last Wednesday to win a crucial swing vote from Councilman Romy Cachola that kept the project alive.
Salt Lake residents were thrilled that yesterday's vote upheld the earlier decision, but others said the city was rapidly creating an expensive mess that would benefit few.
"I'm absolutely elated," said Grant Tanimoto, chairman of the Aliamanu/Salt Lake/Foster Village Neighborhood Board. "For a while there, it was touch and go. But the process played out, and the right decision was made."
Wai'anae resident James Manaku Sr. said he did not believe the system would ever help the Leeward Coast.
"It's not going to benefit us in any way, shape or form," he said. "It's just going to benefit those who develop property along the way."
Voting in favor of the route last week and yesterday were Cachola and council members Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Rod Tam.
Voting in opposition were Donovan Dela Cruz, Charles Djou, Ann Kobayashi and Chairwoman Barbara Marshall.
The decision capped a wild week of political maneuvering as supporters of other paths scrambled for votes, and angry constituents bombarded council members with phone calls and e-mails.
Apo had tried to steer the route back to Hannemann's original proposal of going past the airport by tacking on promises that later links to Salt Lake and UH-Manoa would be top priorities.
Djou, Garcia and Tam joined him yesterday. But the vote fell short when Okino, who had come up with the Salt Lake compromise last week, refused to abandon that route.
Doing so would have stabbed Cachola in the back, and someone else would then almost certainly have switched his or her vote to kill the route anyway, Okino said.
"Obviously, the airport is the better route, but this is political reality," Okino said. "I think we got the best of what we could have gotten."
Cachola said he was "ecstatic" that the Salt Lake route had held up despite the attempts to alter it.
"I'm on cloud nine," Cachola said. "Salt Lake is the best route, for the greater good."
He said an airport link should be built only if the system is later extended into Waikiki.
But Djou called yesterday's decision a "train wreck" that would doom the entire project.
"This system will be a failure from the day it starts, because it has dropped UH-Manoa and the airport," he said. "We're clearly on the wrong track."
Djou had joined Dela Cruz in calling for an alternative that would have stretched from Fort Weaver Road to University Avenue and King Street via the airport. The move was defeated when Kobayashi was the only one to join them. Dela Cruz said he still supports the overall project, but was very frustrated by all the politicking.
"Some people want to build a train, but it looks like we're trying to build a roller coaster," he said. "It goes up and down, and we don't know where it will end. I hope the public doesn't start to lose confidence in the project."
Hannemann conceded that trying to break ground on the project by 2009 was "aggressive" and "ambitious." But he blasted Gov. Linda Lingle for publicly doubting on Monday that such a schedule was possible.
"The governor should really jump on board," Hannemann said. "She's really out of step and out of touch."
Yesterday's decision "takes us another step forward in erasing the image that the Honolulu City Council fumbled 15 years ago, and I think that's very, very important," Hannemann said.
A previous council killed a similar project in 1992 by voting against a tax hike that would have helped pay for it.
Former Mayor Frank Fasi had tried since the late 1970s to build a mass transit system.