Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In rail battle, mayor takes no prisoners

By David Shapiro

When Gov. Linda Lingle said she'd take her time reviewing the city's environmental impact statement on its $5.3 billion commuter rail project, Mayor Mufi Hannemann angrily accused her of "ignorance of the EIS process" and seeking "to politicize the process."

It was the latest example of the city administration's inability to have a civil conversation with anybody questioning rail, and if the project crashes and burns after what the mayor describes as "four years of heroic effort," his antagonistic tone will be one of the reasons.

After five years of picking political fights with Lingle on everything from homeless policy to labor talks, it seems that hurling insults across Punchbowl Street is the only form of communication Hannemann has left. Did it never occur to him that he'd need her signature on rail?

It's typical of the scorched-earth rail debate the city has fostered from the start.

Architects who tried to discuss saving money and reducing visual blight by running part of the elevated commuter line at ground level were dismissed with hostile derision.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano was written off as a washed-up hack when he raised thoughtful issues after 30 years of experience studying rail transit.

Federal judges with security concerns about elevated trains whizzing by their chamber windows got condescending assurances that there were better ways to shoot at judges than from a train.

The city's public meetings on rail were one-way hard sells rather than two-way conversations, and the EIS process was about refuting suggested alternatives rather than giving them serious consideration and incorporating those that made sense.

The city has plowed ahead with what the administration always wanted to do, with the volumes of testimony producing no major changes in course.

And despite a majority vote in favor of rail in the last election before the economy crashed the administration's elbowing has left many people nervous that there's a rush to put shovels in the ground on a political timetable geared to Hannemann's gubernatorial ambitions.

Lingle isn't the mayor's only problem on the official front. U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie has been a staunch rail supporter in pursuing some $1.5 billion in federal funding despite his political differences with Hannemann, but all three candidates to replace him have concerns.

Colleen Hanabusa questions the all-elevated design, Ed Case thinks the city's planning has lacked transparency and Charles Djou has outright opposed rail on the City Council. All three have been on the receiving end of Hannemann political bashings and owe him no favors.

Lingle's main worry is whether the city's rail financing plan still stands up after the crushing recession a concern apparently shared to some extent by federal transit authorities. The governor says a city failure on a project of such magnitude would bring down the financial standing of the entire state.

Lingle has only a draft copy of the final EIS at this point and won't approve or disapprove until she studies the final EIS when it is issued. The federal approval the city expected last year still hasn't come through, and City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell says the final EIS may be a couple of months off.

That raises doubts about whether Hannemann can possibly get construction started before his anticipated resignation in the summer to run for governor.

In addition to a new governor and the likelihood of a new mayor, four City Council members can't run for re-election because of term limits and we'll have a significantly different council next year.

Who knows if the next mayor or a majority of the council will still favor rail? At this point, what sense does it make to rush dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into start-up construction before the long-term support shakes out?