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Emails Document Federal Government Officials' Concerns About the City's $5.3 Billion Rail Project

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN - When it comes to building the City & County of Honolulu’s planned rail project, the city administration has “lousy practices of public manipulation” and has “produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth.”

These two of several email exchanges between Federal Transit Administration about the city’s plan to construct a $5.3 billion, 20-mile elevated steel on steel rail project from Kapolei to Honolulu, highlighted today by former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano and former City Council Chair and Retired Judge Walter Heen.

The emails surfaced this week after Cayetano, Heen and five other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the City & County of Honolulu and the Federal Transit Authority over the city’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The government agency had to release the emails in the discovery process.

“This is the most mismanaged project in 28 years of office,” Cayetano said today after reading several of the emails to the media. He is running for mayor in 2012, and critical of how his opponents, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, and former city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, managed the project.

"These FTA emails echo the charges we have made publicly against the City and in our pending lawsuit against the City and FTA,” Cayetano said.  “If anything, the emails will only increase the public’s disgust and disappointment with how the City has managed the rail project.  Recent polls show that currently 53% of the public now oppose rail. The tide of public opinion has turned against rail and we expect that trend to continue and the gap between pro-railers and anti-railers to widen further.”

Like Cayetano and Heen, HonoluluTraffic.com founder Cliff Slater, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth, Sen. Sam Slom's Small Business Hawaii Education Foundation, Dr. Michael Uechi and Hawaii's Thousand Friends, the five other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last Spring, adamantly disagree that the heavy rail technology is the most environmentally friendly transportation alternative for Honolulu.

The emails that document a number of disagreements between FTA and city officials over the city’s rail plan were buried in 155,000 pages of administrative record.

For example, on October 12, 2006, an email from James Ryan at the FTA to other FTA officials said: ”We seem to be proceeding in the hallowed tradition of Honolulu rapid transit studies: never enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”

Another email from FTA’s Joseph Ossi to other FTA administrators on November 14, 2006, said: “This isn't an FTA issue. Let the city deal with it. They have produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth, so why is FTA wasting time on the City's problems?”

The response from the FTA’s Raymond Sukys to his peers in the FTA said: “This is different. This time they have a huge cash flow, which will build something. It seems likely that we will get involved in litigation again especially since we have an erroneous NOI out there. I do not think the FTA should be associated with their lousy practices of public manipulation and we should call them on it.”

Sukys wrote again Ossi on January 4, 2006, noting: “Toru Hamayasu, the city’s transportation director, “again has aggravated a lot of people. He was recently named in a suit over a procurement issue and during scoping indicated that one of the alternatives (hot lanes) stated in the NOI would be dropped from evaluation since FTA would not fund it, despite our notice that we would evaluate it.”

Ossi wrote to other FTA officials in 2009 stating what many critics had during city’s EIS process: “As you know, the EPA has recently submitted a letter questioning why alternatives to an elevated rail line, such as light rail at street level and bus rapid transit, weren't evaluated in the project's environmental impact study.”

Then he asked other FTA administrators: “Would EPA's questioning of the EIS process possibly impact the timeline of the project?”

Ossi added: “Unless we have good justification in the public NEPA record for eliminating the EPA alternative from consideration, we would be extremely vulnerable in a NEPA suit, and there are numerous potential litigants. If we do not have good justification in the public NEPA record for eliminating the EPA alternative from consideration, then we should supplement the NEPA record. That will take time, but not as much time as litigation.” [Note that the “bus rapid transit” in the EPA letter was “bus rapid transit on a busway.”]

The Administrative Record obtained by the plaintiffs also revealed that the $15 million change order was authorized on October 5, 2011 by then-HART interim director Toru Hamayasu who, along with other HART members, kept the information from the public until it was uncovered by Star Advertiser reporter Kevin Dayton on January 25, 2012, Cayetano said.

“So much for the Mayor’s boasts of 'transparency', said Heen.  “If the Mayor knew about the $15 million change order, he should have immediately disclosed it to the public who ultimately pays the bill for such fiascos.  On the other hand, if Hamayasu kept the information from the Mayor, then Hamayasu should have been fired.”

Neither the city administration nor the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit issued a response to the FTA’s criticism detailed in emails between 2006 and 2010, or comments by Heen and Cayetano.

HART spokesman Scott Ishikawa did forward a statement from the FTA: “There is no question that this project has overcome early obstacles because of a much-improved Federal partnership with the City of Honolulu and State of Hawaii over the last several years.  The Federal Transit Administration believes that this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway and provide a real transportation alternative for the people of Oahu as gas prices rise.”

Panos Prevedouros, a professor of engineering at the University of Hawaii, is one of the state's leading critics of the planned rail system. He said in response to the FTA statement: "Cheap opportunism. Rail won't be able to provide any gas relief for 6 to 10 years if it started construction today, which isn't. Who cares about gasoline cars in 2022? Here's an example: The Toyota Pius recorded one million sales from 1997 to 2008. It reached two million sales in 2010!"

Slater said many might find an inconsistency between today’ FTA comment in response to Cayetano’s charges that, “The Federal Transit Administration believes that this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway and provide a real transportation alternative for the people of Oahu as gas prices rise.”

And their comment in the Record of Decision that, “Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees, but the purpose of the Project is to provide an alternative to the use of congested highways for many travelers.” (http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_ROD.pdf p. 208 of 217).

“This is the kind of doublespeak that Honolulu voters have come to expect from both the City and the FTA,” Slater said.

With 155,000 emails and other documents to review, Slater is optimistic more contentious emails will be uncovered.  “We’ve only just begun to review the correspondence, and Lord only knows what else we will find,” Slater said.

“But for our lawsuit against the City and the FTA, this information would not have been disclosed to the public.”


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