Honolulu will move rail route by 300 feet to avoid airport zone
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
The city plans to change the route of its proposed elevated commuter train to avoid interfering with airspace at the Honolulu International Airport.
The city had hoped to keep the 20-mile, East Kapolei-to-Ala Moana alignment unchanged. However, a portion of the four-story train track and a station planned near the intersection of Aolele Street and Lagoon Drive were too close to the end of two airport runways to allow for safe takeoffs and landings.
Moving the runways would be too expensive for the city, so the mayor has opted to make an adjustment in the route. The train will still have a stop near the airport.
The city hopes that the route change won't require a supplemental environmental impact study or any added City Council vote of approval. Those actions could further delay the project, which was to have broken ground in December. The city has said it hopes to break ground sometime this year.
"I think everyone believes that this is a practical and reasonable solution," city transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka said during testimony before the city council's transportation committee. "This is a proposal from the city to FTA (Federal Transit Administration). They have to look at it and they have the ability to accept it or reject it."
Under the city's proposal, the train's route would shift from Aolele Street mauka about 300 feet starting about 2,000 feet 'ewa of Lagoon Drive.
The plan was detailed in a letter from Mayor Mufi Hannemann to the FTA released by the city yesterday. The letter was sent Monday. Construction in the airport area likely would not occur until 2014 at the earliest.
"This is great news that shows significant progress toward breaking ground on this badly needed project that is so important for O'ahu's future," Hannemann said in a news release.
The rail project cannot proceed until the airport issue is resolved, and Gov. Linda Lingle has signed off on the project's final environmental impact study, which has not yet been completed.
Just how much the route change will cost and how nearby business and property owners will be affected is still under study, Yoshioka said. However, any added costs can be absorbed within the project's current $5.3 billion budget, he said.
The new route would partially run along Ualena Street and traverse an industrial area owned primarily by the airport.
The airport, which is run by the state, had supported the current route, but wanted the city to conduct further impact studies. The city yesterday provided state transportation Director Brennon Morioka with the letter sent to the FTA Monday.
"We're happy to see the process is moving along," Morioka said yesterday. "The DOT will continue to work with the city as they finish their evaluations of their route through airport property to help bring their study to a conclusion."
The City Council voted in January 2009 to divert the path of the train from Salt Lake to the airport. That change adds about $220 million to the cost of the 20-mile East Kapolei-to-Ala Moana project, but is expected to generate higher ridership and greater community acceptance.
Several council members yesterday criticized the city for not disclosing the airport airspace problem and the city's proposed solution sooner.
According to documents recently released by the state, the city was warned as early as 2006 about height restrictions near airport runways. However, it wasn't until mid-2009 that it became clear that the city's planned route encroached on a runway protection zone, Yoshi-oka said.
The extent of the problem surfaced last month when the FAA, FTA, state and city officials met at the airport to discuss how to address the problem.
The city didn't notify the council about the issue sooner because it hoped the airport would either approve of the construction or alter runway operations to accommodate the rail project, Yoshioka said.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson yesterday asked Yoshioka to expeditiously provide the council with any future documents that update the project's financial plan or alter the route of the rail.
"When you guys are asking this council to commit this city and the taxpayers of this city to a project of this magnitude, sir, we need to be privy to all of the information you have, not just the information that you folks deem we should have," Anderson said. "I cannot make a vote based on that type of arrangement."
Yoshioka said it was not reasonable to provide the council with draft documents that were deliberative in nature and subject to change.
Transportation committee Chairman Gary Okino warned that the council shouldn't interfere with the city's effort to build the rail.
"When we give a project to the executive branch, we need to give them the flexibility to implement that project without having to be constrained by the legislative branch getting inappropriately into some of the things that they're doing.
"I think we need to be aware of that and be reasonable in the sense of just getting the things that we really need."