BY JIM DOOLEY

The city today cleared a last significant federal hurdle in the path of the planned $5.5 billion Honolulu rapid transit system when the Federal Transit Administration greenlighted the massive public works project.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff presented what is called a “record of decision” to Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and Toru Hamayasu, general manager for the city’s Rapid Transit Division, in Washington, D.C.

Carlisle issued a press release hailing the decision and said it will mean “thousands of jobs” for Oahu residents.

Managing Director Douglas Chin said in an afternoon press conference that the rail project will “fuel the state economy” for years to come.

Carlisle will meet Thursday with the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Florida, to discuss continued congressional financial support of the project, Chin said.

“The indications we have had are that Rep. Mica and other members of the Transportation Committee are positive about the rail project and we’re hopefully going to be confirming that this week,” Chin said.

Wayne Yoshioka, Acting Director of the city Department of Transportation Services, said full funding of the lengthy rail construction work “is subject to Congress appropriating the (necessary) money every year.”

But he said that once a “full funding grant agreement” with the federal government is signed, Congress is unlikely to stop providing the necessary construction money.

“I don’t think there’s a single incident in history where once you get a full funding grant agreement that they have not fulfilled their contract to deliver the funds that were negotiated,” Yoshioka said.

Execution of the funding agreement is expected either late this year or in early 2012, said Yoshioka.

Other federal money has already been appropriated by the federal government and matching funds generated from Hawaii general excise tax revenues are also earmarked for the project. Groundbreaking is now scheduled for March of this year.

The City Council must still approve what’s known as a Special Management Area permit for the rail project. A vote on that measure is set for Jan. 26.

The elevated rail line is planned to cover a 20-mile route between East Kapolei with Ala Moana Center.  It will include 21 stations at locations including] Waipahu, Pearl City, Aiea, Kalihi, Chinatown, Downtown Honolulu and Kakaako.

A Honolulu rapid transit project has been planned, shelved and revived several times over the past 40 years.  The current version has numerous detractors who question the technology, the projected expenses and the expected ridership of the system.

Chin said the city is sensitive to those concerns and is committed to building a “fiscally responsible” transportation system.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com