Honolulu rail project facing pressure to protect native burials
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
Before starting to build its $5.3 billion commuter rail project, the city must survey the train's route through Kaka'ako to make sure it won't interfere with burials or other cultural resources, a panel charged with protecting Native Hawaiian burials said.
The city plans to build the 20-mile elevated train in phases and intends to conduct archaeological survey s before starting work on each segment. The Kaka'ako segment would be the last to be built, and the area has not yet been surveyed.
The O'ahu Island Burial Council says the city must conduct an archaeological survey of the entire route before starting construction. The group opposes plans to run the elevated train down Halekauwila Street in Kaka'ako, saying it is concerned that the buried remains of Native Hawaiians might be there.
The burial council and others have expressed concerns that if the transit project encounters burials after construction starts, there will be pressure to move the human remains rather than alter the train's route.
Last month the burial council voted unanimously to request that Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Laura Thielen, who is also the State Historic Preservation Officer, not sign a pending agreement with the city that would allow studies of archeological impacts to occur in phases rather than all at once.
The city needs the Federal Transit Administration, Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division, National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to sign that "programmatic agreement" before the rail project's final environmental impact statement can be released and construction of the 20-mile East Kapolei to Ala Moana train can start.
However, several groups — including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Oahu Island Burial Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Historic Hawaii Foundation and the American Institute of Architects — are pushing for changes to the language of the agreement, which establishes the framework for mitigating the impact of the rail project on Honolulu historical resources.
STATE LAW INVOKED
The burial council is appointed by the governor and works to protect Hawaiian burial sites. The resolution was drafted with help from the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.
Both groups contend that state law requires that all archaeological studies be completed before the state can allow the city to proceed with the rail project.
"The city has to complete the historic review process before the project can start and the historic review process requires that all the archaeological reports be done now," said David Frankel, an attorney for the NHLC. "The state can't sign off until the entire review process is completed."
Thielen was unavailable for comment.
"She is still reviewing the OIBC resolution and surrounding issues," said Deborah Ward, a DLNR spokeswoman.
According to a 2006 study by the city, there is a high probability of finding Native Hawaiian burials and other archaeological artifacts once construction starts in urban Honolulu. However, the city does not plan an archaeological survey of the Middle Street-to-Ala Moana Center segment of the rail project until next year. The city is planning to begin construction on the first phase of the rail line in East Kapolei later this year and complete the entire 20-mile line by 2019.
The train's route down Halekauwila Street was chosen by the Honolulu City Council in early 2007, based on a 2006 study of various transit alternatives.
The city has said it would consider moving train guideway footings and altering utility relocation plans to avoid iwi — human remains. However, it's unlikely that discovering human remains in Kaka'ako will cause the city to alter the route, city officials have said.
The city doesn't think plans to conduct archaeological studies in phases violate state law, said city Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka.
"We're just going to have to see," he said. "We don't think it's a problem."
The programmatic agreement is under final review by required signatories, Yoshioka said. The city expected that agreement to be completed late last year, followed by groundbreaking in December.
However, construction has breen delayed by the programmatic agreement and issues concerning the train's impact on airspace safety zones at Honolulu International Airport.
Yoshioka declined to predict when construction would begin.
"Rather than make assumptions about how things are going to go, what we want to do is let the process play out," he said.