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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2010

Honolulu rail project losing Hannemann as its driving force

Special Report: Rail Transit


By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Mufi Hannemann's political aspirations and management of the city's $5.5 billion rail project are parting ways.

Hannemann's decision announced yesterday to run for governor and his pending resignation from his city office will put the future of the rail project into a successor's hands.

Just how the state's largest-ever public works project survives the separation from Hannemann the project's biggest champion is unclear and is likely to be heavily debated as the race for governor heats up.

Hannemann did not address the rail issue during his short announcement in Kalihi yesterday. However, accusations that Hannemann's bid for governor could jeopardize the rail project arose immediately after the announcement .

Hannemann's Democratic opponent Neil Abercrombie and others contend the mayor should have shepherded the project through the end of the mayoral term in 2012.

"Mufi has been totally hands-on with the rail and he's totally hands off now," said Lance Miyake, the business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260. The IBEW has endorsed Abercrombie. "He wanted to make it seem like it's his project and now it seems he's abandoning the project."

Honolulu's proposed 20-mile East Kapolei to Ala Moana rail project has made significant progress during the past decade. But one of the biggest steps breaking ground has eluded Hannemann.

The project has been bogged down in an environmental review process that was supposed to be completed last year. Groundbreaking, which also was supposed to occur in East Kapolei last year, has been delayed indefinitely.

Two recent sticking points proximity to Honolulu International Airport and impact on cultural and historic resources are nearly resolved. Wrapping those up will clear the way for the release of a final environmental impact statement for the project soon, said Jennifer Sabas, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye's chief of staff in Honolulu. That means the rail project is in a position to move forward without Hannemann.

"There are a few outstanding issues," Sabas said. But, "I definitely think it's far enough along and the process will take care of itself."

City Council Chairman Todd Apo agreed.

"I don't think this will affect the project," he said. "I think everyone in charge of making this project understands how important this project is to our island. Obviously the mayor was a big leader in this project. That doesn't mean he's the only person that can do that.

"I'm confident that the interim, acting mayor as well as whoever may take that position ... will continue those efforts."

CALDWELL STEPS UP

Hannemann's duties will be assumed by city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell until a special election for mayor this fall. Caldwell, Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, City Councilmen Donovan Dela Cruz and Rod Tam and University of Hawai'i-Mānoa engineering professor Panos Prevedouros have expressed interest in running for mayor.

The first major rail-related task ahead will be to push for the federal release of the project's final environmental impact statement. Gov. Linda Lingle then will need to sign off on the document before construction can begin. However, Lingle says she wants to hold public hearings on the rail's environmental impact and conduct an analysis of the cost and revenue estimates. That could take months and won't begin until the city releases an updated financial plan for the project.

Even if Lingle ultimately approves the project, a lawsuit seeking to stop the construction is likely.

"This (rail project) is not inevitable," said rail opponent Cliff Slater, who advocates for a managed highway lane alternative to rail.

However, Slater doubted that Hannemann's exit would have much impact.

"At this point I think the mayor's primary function was to generate community approval, but when it comes to the environmental side of things, it's out of his hands and that's where it's stuck right now."

City Councilman Romy Cachola criticized Hannemann's decision to leave office before construction has begun.

"I don't know what will happen to the rail project," Cachola said. "I'm really concerned (about) its success without him leading the charge."

HIGHER OFFICE

However, George Paris, director of the Iron Workers' Stabilization Fund, said Hannemann could do more to support the project from a higher office. The Iron Workers Local 625 has endorsed Hannemann's bid for governor.

"The mayor was on top of this all the way," Paris said. "There were so many people out there trying to block the project.

"Him being governor, it might benefit rail. We want to see it move forward," Paris said. "If it doesn't happen this time, it won't happen at all."