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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 6, 2009

City's stifling of rail debate troubling

By David Shapiro

With the first shovels scheduled to hit the ground on the city's $5.4 billion rail transit system in only seven months, the Hannemann administration's aversion to open discussion of the massive project is worrisome.

The city is just now releasing some of the hundreds of comments submitted by in the environmental review and continues to sit on 200 responses to its draft environmental impact statement until the administration can answer with its own spin.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann and his lieutenants have been dismissive of virtually all concerns about the 20-mile commuter line between Kapolei and Honolulu; questions by respected parties such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal court, Kamehameha Schools and the American Institute of Architects have been curtly rejected as inconsequential.

With some 1,300 pages of documents publicly undigested, the city continues to press for federal approval of the EIS by August to clear the way for construction to begin in December.

The EIS becomes a meaningless formality if we fly through it without full public consideration of issues raised. Does anybody buy that the Hannemann administration has been 100 percent correct in its transit decisions and nobody else has worthwhile thoughts to offer?

Of special concern is the administration's bullying tone in stifling debate on the most expensive public works project in Hawai'i's history.

A reporter does a straightforward transit story the mayor doesn't like and his spokes-man personally attacks the reporter. Councilman Duke Bainum questions elevating the entire length of the line and he, too, is personally attacked.

The question of elevated trains vs. building at ground level is a good example of how the city has avoided full airing of major decisions.

Bainum isn't the first to raise the issue; the architects argued from the start that elevation would be unsightly and unduly expensive, Kamehameha Schools questioned why tracks in less dense areas couldn't be at ground level and the EPA said the city gave short shrift to ground-level options in the EIS.

When concerns about the elevated design were raised in the planning phase, the administration suggested the EIS would be the appropriate time to talk about it. Now with the EIS on a fast track, they say it's too late to review the issue without delaying the start of construction.

The administration's familiar refrain is, "We've been talking about this for 30 years and let's just build it already."

Yes, we've debated whether to build a rail line for decades, but we've been planning the specifics of what to build for just a couple of years.

Yes, voters approved rail in the last election, but they didn't give the city a blank check to build whatever it wants at any cost without full discussion.

So here we are seven months from groundbreaking with the EIS flying by, unresolved property issues, no design and construction contract, 44 new transit employees about to be hired with no clear explanation of what they'll do, revenue from the transit tax far short of projections, no approved federal funding, no clear understanding of how much it'll cost to operate the system or how we'll pay for it and no approved plan for transit-oriented development.

Taxpayers are being asked to take an unprecedented leap of faith, and the administration's resistance to full and timely dialogue doesn't make it easy.

With the mayor limited to two terms, it's understandable that Hannemann would want to get his signature project firmly under way before his eight years are up.

But understanding comes harder if the rush to get shovels in the ground is so Hannemann can bail out at six years and have transit as the centerpiece of a campaign for higher office.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.