While the battle over whether the City & County of Honolulu will build a $5.3 billion 20-mile, steel on steel rail system from West Oahu to Honolulu continues, opponents of the project are seeking money to fund their lawsuit challenging the project’s Environmental Impact Statement.
Filed against the city and Federal Transit Administration earlier this year by community leaders including former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, former State Judge Walter Heen, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth, Retired Businessman Cliff Slater, Dr. Michael Uechi and a number of community groups including Hawaii’s Thousand Friends and Small Business Hawaii Foundation, the federal lawsuit claims there are less costly and more environmentally friendly alternatives to improve Oahu’s traffic congestion.
“Federal environmental laws require the City to perform a full historic resources survey of the entire corridor from Kapolei to UH, including locating native Hawaiian burial sites, before choosing a route. They didn’t do it,” Slater said. “Second, federal law also required the City to “rigorously” study the various alternative transportation technologies to see which one, and on which route, would provide adequate transit service with the least impact on the historic properties and burial sites in the corridor. They didn’t do it. Instead, the City picked elevated rail, the alternative with the worst negative impacts.”
The group, organized through HonoluluTraffic.com, has hired one of the nation’s top environmental attorneys, Nicolas Yost of the San Francisco- based law firm SNRDenton.
Yost, who in 2010 was named the winner of the American Bar Association’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy, served as the General Counsel of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. There he was the lead draftsperson of the Federal Government’s National Environmental Policy Act Regulations, which the FTA has to abide by.
While the city administration is funding its own public relations, litigation and promotion of the rail with taxpayer dollars, opponents are funding the lawsuit entirely with private funds.
The group has raised $152,000, but needs at least another $90,000 for legal expenses.
In letters to supporters, Slater and Cayetano said the rail would degrade the grace of the city, block views, destroy the Honolulu waterfront, and be an economic and environmental disaster.
Slater writes: “Many believe elevated heavy rail would provide traffic relief but the City admits in the Final EIS that, “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.”
Deeming the rail the “Train from Nowhere”, Slater points out that the rail starts on the Ewa plain, destroying Hawaii’s highest rated farmland, and yet does not connect to the populated areas including the City of Kapolei, Campbell Industrial Park, Ewa Beach, or the Waianae Coast.
The rail would end at Ala Moana Center, not UH Manoa, which Slater said is regarded as the epicenter of Oahu’s traffic problems. Along the way, it would “wall off the city from the waterfront and tear up native Hawaiian burial grounds along the way.”
While the city argues that the rail is more energy efficient and “green” form of transportation, opponents say this is a myth: “The U.S. Department of Energy shows that, in most cases, the energy use per passenger mile for rail is higher than that for automobiles,” Slater said.
Opponents also challenge the mayor’s claim that the rail would create 17,000 jobs, when The Honolulu Advertiser investigators concluded, “only about 350 future construction jobs can be directly connected to the project. That’s the peak number of people that Kiewit Pacific has said it would employ during rail’s construction from East Kapolei to Leeward Community College.”
“The rail project is really about developers building over Oahu’s best farmland and generating campaign contributions from others who would also make money off rail, such as landowners, construction companies, construction union leaders, and engineering companies; it is not about solving our traffic problems,” Slater said.
Financing the rail is another major issue that opponents raise: “CB Richard Ellis, a global consulting firm, projects a $460 million shortfall in the percent GE tax collections from the City’s latest financial plan. The Federal Transit Administration’s own consultants found a similar shortfall.”
Slater warns that all the transit operating subsidies would come from the City’s General Fund, which are funding by property taxes: “Can you personally afford the 40 percent property tax increases that would result from tax revenue shortfalls, rail operating subsidies and construction cost overruns?”
The city continues to issue contracts for the rail project, but city officials are limited right now in what they can actually do because they have not received final federal approval for the project.
In addition, federal funding is being cut nationwide for rail projects. A House proposal covered earlier this week would cut transportation funding nationwide by 35 percent to 37 percent.
Rail proponents are counting on $1.5 billion in federal funding but reports show that amount may be difficult to obtain when rail funds are largely being issued to existing projects that need maintenance in heavy populated cities.
Besides cost and impact on the economy, Slater reviewed the rail’s environmental impact concerns. “This project is a noisy elevated $5.3 billion rail line, 35 feet high and 30 feet wide blanketing most of the streets it runs on. Trains run every 10 minutes for six of the 20 hours it operates. It would cross the most valuable part of Honolulu’s waterfront area and through our historic districts. It is opposed by nearly every one of Hawaii’s environmental organizations, but the FTA approved this elevated rail project as the ‘environmentally preferable alternative?’”
Gov. Cayetano sent out a separate letter soliciting donations to help fund the lawsuit, which offfered his political insight: “When politicians are so enamored by projects that they will do anything to get them done, bad things usually happen. This is the case with the City’s elevated heavy rail project.”
Cayetano asks the public to take a hard look at the rendering of what the rail station at the intersection of Bishop Street and Nimitz Highway is likely to look like.
“Unlike the slick, misleading renderings used by the city, this rendering was prepared to scale by the Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Architects usually like rail projects because it provides work for them, but not this one, which the AIA strongly opposed,” Cayetano said.
He also challenges the public to ask whether the rail project is the “legacy we want to leave to our grandchildren and future generations? For our group, all ordinary citizens with no special interest in rail, the answer is a resounding “No!”–and we’ve filed lawsuit in federal court to hold the City accountable and compel it to obey federal law.”
HonoluluTraffic.com plaintiffs said many other transit alternatives not properly studied by the City “would reduce congestion, provide good transit service, all without destroying our city.”
The group is collecting tax-deductible contributions through the “SBH Educational Foundation Rail Fund”, 6600 Kalanianaole Hwy, Suite 212, Honolulu HI 96825.