Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 8, 2009

EIS brawl may stop rail plan in its tracks

By David Shapiro

Before he died last month, the late Councilman Duke Bainum helped stake out what will likely be the next stage in the battle over O'ahu rail transit.

Bainum co-signed with Councilman Charles Djou a June 2 letter to federal transportation authorities that accused the Hannemann administration of rushing through the environmental review without fully addressing required issues.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who opposes rail, said cut corners on the environmental impact statement could be the undoing of the proposed $5.4 billion commuter train between Kapolei and Honolulu.

"I predict a lawsuit will be filed and the filing of the EIS will be enjoined and the city will have to do it all over again," Cayetano said. "The lawsuits which delayed H-3 for more than two decades should have been a lesson to all government officials and politicians."

That remains to be seen, but Bainum and Djou outlined the grounds for such a lawsuit in their 11-page letter to Roy Kientz of the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging the city administration:

  • Improperly confined the EIS to the elevated fixed-guideway system that Mayor Mufi Hannemann favors, while failing to do promised equal analysis of other options such as ground-level light rail, monorail and bus rapid transit.

  • Failed to address the environmental impact of potential future extensions to the University of Hawai'i and Waikiki, which were included in the EIS notice published in the Federal Register.

  • Rushed to lock in the elevated guideway without considering concerns about its cost and environmental impact raised during the EIS process.

  • "Stonewalled" and expressed hostility toward criticism of the elevated guideway, including comments submitted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and delayed public release of 600 critical EIS comments.

  • Persuaded the City Council to release more than $1 billion in local funds for construction in advance of federal approval, based on overly optimistic assurances that the final EIS and up to $1.4 billion in federal funding will soon be approved.

    Bainum and Djou said neither the rail initiative passed by voters last year nor any action by the City Council limit consideration to a fixed guideway that is elevated for its entire 20 miles.

    They asked the Transportation Department to find that the draft EIS fails to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and prohibit spending on preliminary engineering or construction until other transit options that are cheaper and less environmentally intrusive are objectively evaluated.

    There's no clear sign as to how seriously federal authorities are taking concerns raised by Bainum and Djou.

    The Hannemann administration insists that all options were fairly studied and that federal approval is proceeding smoothly. The administration defends the elevated fixed guideway as the best choice in terms of speed, efficiency, operating costs and minimizing land acquisition.

    The mayor isn't backing down from his push to break ground this year; if anything, now that he's formed an exploratory committee to run for governor next year, he's more determined to show progress in the face of criticism that he's abandoning the rail project in mid-stream.

    Hannemann has depended heavily on the political clout of Hawai'i's senior Sen. Daniel Inouye to shepherd rail through the federal approval process.

    A political complication is that Hannemann's Democratic opponent for governor would be Hawai'i's senior House member, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who also has influence over federal decision-making.

    Abercrombie, a longtime rail advocate, has supported the city's application, but now that he's locked in political competition with the mayor, he can be expected to turn a critical eye toward the specifics of how Hannemann is handling the project.