Honolulu rail-transit schedule slips again
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hope that recent delays in the timeline of the city's proposed rail project would quickly be resolved are giving way to the realization that construction probably won't begin anytime soon.
City officials have acknowledged in recent weeks that release of the project's final environmental impact study and groundbreaking have been delayed indefinitely, but new dates posted on the city's Web site for the project are the first recognition that it may take longer than even they had anticipated.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann said yesterday that the rail transit project has fallen behind schedule due to a prolonged environmental impact study process but said that he still hopes to have construction under way sometime this year.
The projected schedule for rail transit posted at www.honolulutransit.org indicates that groundbreaking and start of construction are now expected late this year.
That would put the project as much as a year behind schedule.
Groundbreaking, originally planned for December 2009, had to be put off when federal review of the project's environmental study took longer than expected.
As recently as January, city officials were saying that federal approval of the final environmental review was expected in February, with groundbreaking to start soon thereafter.
A draft of the EIS is under review by the Federal Transit Administration.
Wayne Yoshioka, director of the city Department of Transportation, said the report is "99.5 percent done," although concerns regarding the protection of historical sites near Pearl Harbor and the system's alignment are still being addressed.
The project ultimately requires the governor's approval, and once the FTA releases the study it will be up to Gov. Linda Lingle whether to accept it. And therein lies the concern, according to Hannemann.
The governor, who was given an administrative draft of the study, said she intends to conduct a thorough review to make sure the study meets all of its legal requirements.
Lingle also said she plans to conduct an independent analysis of the city tax revenue forecasts that are the basis of the project's financial plan.
Calls to Lingle's representatives were not immediately returned. Lingle is in Washington, D.C., for the meeting of the National Governors Association. She is also expected to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Hawai'i transportation issues.
Hannemann will be in Washington next week for a regularly scheduled meeting with the FTA.
"We wanted to (break ground) ... in December 2009 but everything right now is being held up by the EIS," Hannemann said. "The goal is still to break ground this year. The problem is that all (Lingle's) messages have been very negative regarding her timely acceptance of" the EIS.
Hannemann chafed at Lingle's public assessment of the project's financial plan as "shaky," and he cited the FTA's recent commitment of $1.55 billion toward the $5.3 billion system.
"That's even before we go into final design or release the EIS," he said. "This is a great position for us, and for the governor to continue to put up roadblocks when she has no other job stimulus projects that will create jobs now nor any project that will bring about traffic relief is dumbfounding.
"Her assessment of our financial plan being shaky goes against what the FTA told her, which is that they review us every step along the way. The final EIS is not at her desk, but 13 state agencies have already reviewed this and nobody is raising major concerns that this is not going to be done."
Hannemann has previously said that delaying the rail project could cost taxpayers an additional $200 million per year. The project calls for an elevated rail line that will run 20 miles from East Kapolei to Ala Moana.
City Council chairman Todd Apo said the delays are not a reflection of problems with the project itself.
"Overall, the project is not starting as soon as we would have liked, but this does not show that there is a problem with the project itself," Apo said. "The FTA has already committed $1.55 billion to it. They have a draft of the EIS and they consider it a good project.
"Obviously we don't want it delayed, but the governor has a role and an independent look at it can be helpful as long as it's done in a timely manner. Obviously there is some back and forth between the mayor and the governor, but hopefully that won't get in the way of the process."
City Councilman Charles Djou, an outspoken opponent of the rail plan, said that the delay in breaking ground is a result of complications arising from Hannemann's "my way or the railway" approach to pushing the project.
"After the vote in 2008, what he should have done was build consensus in the community and reach out to opponents," Djou said. "He continued to refuse to hold public hearings, and as a consequence there is a lack of public confidence. These are self-inflicted wounds.
"This is bad for everyone. His bullheaded style is unhealthy. Even though I opposed rail, the voters voted to do it. So if we're going to do it, let's do it right and not waste the taxpayers' money."