BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Two days ago, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano released a series of email exchanges between Federal Transit Administration officials critical of the city’s planned $5.3 billion steel on steel rail project, claiming city officials had “lousy practices of public manipulation” and “produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth.”
Cayetano, a candidate for Honolulu mayor, is opposed to the project, and used the emails written between 2006 and 2009 obtained recently through federal litigation to demonstrate the FTA’s true feelings about the city’s management of the project and the rail plan itself.
Today, the FTA emails – or at least the dismissal of them – became part of the congressional record.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who appeared at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, told Hawaii’s Senior Senator Daniel Inouye the emails were exchanged under a prior administration and now the federal government is fully committed to the project.
“Since I have taken this position, I have had the privilege of being with you in your state. We’ve talked about this project. You were kind enough to convene a meeting about this and other projects in Hawaii. I want you to know that we are committed to this project. This is an important project. This will deliver people all over the island. It’s an important project and at this point, we will continue to work through whatever issues need to be worked through. We’re committed to this. We’re committed to the money; we’re committed to the project. And, until we hear differently from others who are intimately involved in this, I see no reason why we won’t go forward,” LaHood said.
LaHood was reaffirming his Department of Transportation’s FY2013 budget request that asks for $250 million for the 20-mile Honolulu Rail Transit project, the “largest single item in the Department’s New Starts portfolio,” and addressed the emails after Inouye asked him for his current view of the project. (see the exchange here on video/)
University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth, who is one of the 7 plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit with Cayetano against the rail project, said the $250 million for the rail will be a waste of taxpayer money if the plaintiffs win the lawsuit in August to stop the rail or Cayetano is elected mayor and stops the project that way.
Roth said: “It’s telling that the Secretary did not mention that the City will have to tear everything down if we win our lawsuit or if Gov. Cayetano is elected mayor.”
Roth said rather than attempt to shed light by addressing these facts, the Secretary chose to ‘whistle in the dark.’ “That might feel good in the short run, but it does nothing to prevent the City of Honolulu from wasting local taxpayer money building something that it almost certainly will have to be torn down later this year.”
Hood’s comments followed a brief FTA statement released shortly after Cayetano’s Tuesday press conference that said: “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.”
Roth said there is an inconsistency in LaHood’s most recent statement about rail’s impact on traffic congestion when compared to the FTA’s official position on that issue.
University of Hawaii Engineering Professor Panos Prevedouros, who is a consult to many transportation projects around the world, said: “By law, all transit projects are pork barrel projects. This is simply a demonstration of Dan Inouye’s political muscle flexing. He has to do a lot of it between now and November when things will become much more difficult for him.”
He added: “Of course the fact that FTA and the federal court case allege significant law violations on the islands Sen. Inouye represents does not phase him one bit. Sadly, he is un-writing his own success story.”
National transportation and planning expert Wendell Cox, who was in Hawaii two times recently to make presentations on transportation and planning solutions, noted as Roth did that the FTA’s comments “are materially different on traffic congestion than its previous comments and different than is indicated by the technical record as indicated in the FTA record of decision.”
In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Cox wrote: “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, ….” The FTA went on to say “the purpose of the project is to provide an alternative to the use of congested highways for many travelers.”
Cox also said he is “fascinated” by the federal government’s response to the release of the FTA emails and how political the rail project has become.
“Having watched FTA for 35 years, I have never seen such an entry into a local political campaign,” Cox said. “Usually federal agencies studiously attempt to steer clear of local politics, and especially local elections. FTA appears to have crossed the line in this case.”
Cox said “the only conceivable purpose for the statement seems to have been to undermine Governor Cayetano’s comments and to provide support to Mayor Carlisle’s campaign.” Carlisle is one of the rail’s main proponent and is up for re-election.
An FTA spokesperson contacted today did not want to expand on FTA’s original statement or comment on the allegation the FTA has inserted itself into Hawaii politics.