Challenge to Honolulu Rail Project Goes to Federal Court

article top

Attorneys for the city and Federal Transit Authority will be in U.S. District Court on Wednesday at 10 a.m. seeking to have several high profile plaintiffs challenging the legality of the city’s rail system thrown out.

They claim former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, Retired Judge Walter Heen, Dr. Michael Uechi, UH Law Professor Randal Roth and the Small Business Hawaii Foundation do not have standing.


However, the plaintiffs, which include founder Cliff Slater, former Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano, the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, Retired Judge and former City Council Chair Walter Heen, Dr. Michael Uechi, Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, and University of Hawaii Law Professor Randal Roth, say they are impacted by the city’s plan and they maintain that the city did not consider other options as required before approving the rail project.

Specifically, their Complaint outlines three statutes they say the city violated related to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Properties Act (NHPA), and the U.S. Transportation Act of 1966. Those include the failure to consider all reasonable alternatives, analyze the environmental consequences of alternatives, identify and evaluate use of native hawaiian burials and traditional cultural properties and the effects on historic properties.

But the defendants will have quite a battle on its hands.

The plaintiffs teamed up with nationally renowned environmental attorney Nicolas Yost, partner in San Francisco based SNRDenton firm. Yost is considered one of the top – if not the top – environmental lawyer in the country.  He is the recipient of the American Bar Association’s 2010 Award for Distinguished Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy. Chambers USA ranked him as one of the leading American lawyers for business in the field of Native American Law. His experiences over decades includes acting as general counsel of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and drafting the federal government’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. He’s tackled airport expansions, gas pipelines, Native American Indian burials and gaming sites, power plants, highways, bridges, and rail projects. He represented a host of Native American groups.’s Cliff Slater, who recruited Yost, said the city’s case is “weak” and filled with “glaring legal deficiencies.”

Plaintiffs in the supporters, who have raised about a quarter of a million dollars from private donors to fund a lawsuit challenging the validity of the rail’s Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the city and approved by the federal government – and still trying to raise more money to pay Yost’s $800 an hour fee.

Meanwhile the city is relying on taxpayers to fund their defense. The city council has authorized $600,000 for private attorneys to defend the city against the legal challenge.