Former City Council Chair Walter Heen with Former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano

BY WENDELL COX – The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has intervened in the Honolulu Mayor’s race against challenger and former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano. Governor Cayetano and Mayor Peter Carlisle are locked in a bitter contest that could determine whether the proposed $5.1 billion rail line is built.

Mayor Carlisle is a strong supporter of the rail line. Challenger Cayetano has promised to “pull the plug” on the rail system. Recent polls show that the project’s former thin majority support among Honolulu residents has now turned to opposition.

At a 1:30 p.m. press conference yesterday (March 13), Governor Cayetano released e-mails from the FTA indicating concerns about the rail project. According to Cayetano, “Not only it is apparent that FTA officials share some of our concerns, but it’s also apparent that they warned the city about pending litigation if certain things were not done.”

One of the FTA emails, obtained from the administrative record said “I do not think the FTA should be associated with their lousy practices of public manipulation and we should call them on it.”

Reflecting a surprising ability to “turn on a dime,” FTA quickly responded in an apparent attempt to diffuse Governor Cayetano’s point. According to KITV, “In response to the press conference, a spokesman for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation issued the following statement on behalf of 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.

Curiously, the FTA’s statement contradicted its own previous position on the traffic impact of the rail line. In its January 2011 “record of decision” for the project, FTA indicated:  “Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees,….”

Further, it is unusual for federal agencies to take part in local election campaigns.

The Honolulu rail project was covered in more detail in a recent newgeography.com commentary, Honolulu’s Money Train.

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Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris since 2002. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life http://demographia.com