City's rail rendering

Seven plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the City & County of Honolulu and the Federal Transit Administration over the city’s planned $5.3 billion rail project, received some good news today.

HonoluluTraffic.com founder Cliff Slater, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, retired Judge Walter Heen, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randal Roth, Sen. Sam Slom’s Small Business Hawaii Education Foundation, Dr. Michael Uechi and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends learned that Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the Ninth Circuit Court, who is overseeing a lawsuit, rejected the challenge by the defendants to the plaintiffs’ standing.

The city and FTA attempted to have four of seven plaintiffs disqualified including Cayetano, Heen, Roth and the SBH Foundation, saying they had not voiced concerns about the project before joining the lawsuit.

But because the city and federal government have not turned over some 500,000 pages of record to the plaintiffs for more than 6 months, in effect delaying the case for several months, the judge agreed that it would be difficult to tell whether the plaintiffs had in fact participated.

“Judge Tashima not only denied the City/FTA motion but said that he wouldn’t consider their arguments because they have been dilatory in preparing the record.  It’s a complete victory and a confirmation that the City/County’s motion was a waste of the court’s time and the taxpayers’ money,” said Nicolas Yost, the nation’s top environmental lawyer who represents the citizens challenging the project.

The City called Tashima’s ruling “expected,” but added that the disqualification motion will be renewed later.

The Corporation Counsel’s office said the full administrative record, when finally compiled, will confirm that the four disputed plaintiffs “did not participate in the EIS process.”

Yost said the city’s refusal to cooperate with the records request is something he has never seen before in all his years of practicing law. Cliff Slater said because the city and FTA have a weak case, they are intentionally “dragging their feet” to defeat the plaintiffs out of court by raising the cost of the lawsuit through delays.

The project has divided Oahu residents.

On one side, the appointed board charged with overseeing the project, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, rushed to sign a $1.4 billion 14-year contract with the financially troubled Italian-owned firm, Ansaldo Honolulu Joint Venture, for car construction, operation and maintenance.

U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, the most important backer of the project, also is stepping up the pressure, announcing recently that Hawaii could be eligible for up to a portion of $510 million in FY 2012 should a full funding grant agreement be signed by the end of 2012. So far, Hawaii has received about $90 million, but Inouye pledged to bring in $1.855 billion should the city keep the project on track.

On the other side, there are several well-known community and political leaders who oppose the elevated steel rail system because they say it is expensive, invasive, culturally insensitive, inflexible, and frankly too ugly, for an island paradise.

The Outdoor Circle, which is opposed to the project, issued a scathing statement in recent days, saying in its 100 year history, The Outdoor Circle has seen no other venture that holds the potential to degrade the landscape of Oahu as the proposed Honolulu Rail Transit project.

“Of great concern to The Outdoor Circle is the visual damage caused by Transit. The City acknowledges that the damage will occur but has determined that the blight the project creates is the price our residents and visitors must pay for “progress.” Imagine the cumulative visual impact of more than 20 miles of a massive elevated concrete guideway, supported by 720 large concrete columns with the inevitable graffiti and enormous transit stations. The project is destined to become an ugly scar across one of the most beautiful places on earth while there is little evidence that it will bring relief to Oahu’s unacceptable traffic situation,” the Outdoor Circle said.

The League of Women Voters also is opposed to the project.

Plaintiffs will still need to get through what is now expected to be another year of litigation over the city’s choice of an elevated heavy steel on steel rail system.  Tashima believes the case will take until the summer or fall of 2012 to resolve.

Meanwhile the city is still moving forward with the construction of the rail project, issuing the $1.4 billion contract for the rail cars and relocating utility lines and grading certain areas along the route.

The plaintiffs may have to take the city to court to stop construction from moving forward until the case is resolved.

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