Contentious Debate: Carlisle Says Honolulu Has Waited Long Enough for Rail, But Political Opponent Cayetano Says Halt the Pricey Project Until Federal Litigation is Settled

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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – What’s the rush to build rail? That was the question Hawaii Reporter posed to Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle at a press conference Thursday after critics said Carlisle is expediting the city’s $5.3 billion rail project without first settling federal civil litigation that might force the city to cancel the elevated steel on steel line.

University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth, one of seven plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental impact statement and the rail’s impact on Oahu’s environment and cultural sites, asked: “Why is the City rushing to spend billions of local taxpayer dollars before first finding out whether any of the requested $1.55 billion in federal funds will actually be approved by Congress and how Judge Tashima will decide the federal lawsuit later this year?”


Carlisle said the project has been in the works for decades and all of Hawaii’s political powers are aligned in support. “When did rail begin? 1968. If you call 40 years with how many different mayors, how many city councils, how many studies, and how many efforts, rushed – what is being rush about that? … This has been vetted every conceivable way, upways, downward, backward. We are ready for it. Every day we delay is a waste of money. We’ve worked on it hard. We’ve worked on it diligently. The federal people are in the best shape ever that ever we have had to give us the money.”

Well known community and political leaders, including Former Governor Benjamin Cayetano, former Honolulu City Council Chair and Retired Judge Walter Heen, Retired Businessman Cliff Slater and Dr. Michael Uechi, and non profits including Hawaii’s Thousand Friends and the Small Business Hawaii Education Foundation, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit to halt the project. The League of Women Voters and the Outdoor Circle also are opposed.

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle

But Carlisle maintains virtually everyone is in support: “President Obama likes it. Dan Inouye likes it. All of our congressional members support it. Ok. Against that you have Ben Cayetano – fine – who says no, no, no, no, no – and that is apparently that is something he likes to say.”

Cayetano said: “As usual, Carlisle tried to deflect answering your question. Support rail, he said, because Dan Inouye and our congressional support it. Well, if that’s how Carlisle makes decisions there is no need for him to continue as our mayor.  I respect Dan Inouye and voted for him in every election but I won’t vote for something just because Inouye ‘likes it.’ In fact, Dan’s public statements suggest the only thing he knows about the City’s rail system is what the city and the FTA have told him. For months, Inouye extolled rail publicly by claiming it would reduce traffic congestion.  He doesn’t say it anymore because by now he must know that both the City and the FTA admit — that rail will not reduce traffic congestion.”

Cayetano said Carlisle does not explain why he thinks it is wise for the City to award multi-million dollar rail contracts when there is no Full Funding Agreement for the $1.5 billion between the FTA and the City. “It’s like writing a bad check. The man on the street can be prosecuted for it.”

Cayetano added: “Carlisle does not explain what the City will do if Congress  — which has the final say — does not approve the $1.5 billion the City needs to build the rail system. He does not say why he thinks it wise for the city to start construction on a vacant field near Kapolei rather than from downtown outward as his successor was advised by former Director of State Transportation Rod Haraga making the rail line virtually unusable until the entire 20 miles is completed over a 20 year period. And he doesn’t say what he will do if the construction of the rail line is halted because of lack of funds.  If he can’t answer these questions perhaps he can ask Dan Inouye and all of the others who support rushing rail construction what they would do in such a case.”

Their banter is contentious because what happens this year will likely determine the future of the project and city officials are getting pressure from opponents on multiple fronts.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano announces plans to run for mayor in 2012

Cayetano recently announced his plans to run for Honolulu mayor against Carlisle and former Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, both rail supporters, in the coming August primary, and a recent media poll shows Cayetano in the lead. In addition, the same media poll by the Star Advertiser and Hawaii News Now shows public support for the project is falling.

“The recent StarAdvertiser/Hawaii News Now poll reveals it has become obvious to many that $5.27 billion is too high a price to pay for an obsolete, steel on steel rail system that will not reduce traffic congestion and will change the character of our beautiful city forever. Carlisle explained the shift in public opinion by complaining that the city did not do a good job of touting the benefits of rail to the public.  Perhaps, he is not aware that the city hired at least ten public relations firms and has already spent more than $5 million to explain the so-called “benefits” of rail,” Cayetano said.

Among cities with a population of less than one million, Honolulu is ranked as the most unaffordable city in the nation, Cayetano said.  “Our residents already pay high taxes — as well as the highest gas and electricity prices in the nation. Nearly everything in Hawaii costs more than on the mainland.  Sewer and water fees have nearly doubled over the past few years.  And unless more money is infused into those systems, the fees will continue to rise perhaps exponentially.  If Carlisle wants to know why 53% of the people now oppose rail, I suggest he try talking to senior citizens living on fixed incomes (try McDonald’s where many seniors go for a cheap breakfast) or young people who plan to move to the mainland because they can’t afford to live here.”

But what about the assertion by Roth, Cayetano and other plaintiffs that the city should wait on the project until the lawsuit is settled?

Carlisle said: “You can stay in the court system, as we know from the criminal justice system, from now until to doomsday. We are now in a position where we are ready to go. If they want to file, and they’ve already told you they are not going to file an injunctive motion, than we are not going to plow ahead, we are moving ahead according to plan and making sure it is done now as inexpensively as possible.”

Cliff Slater

Cliff Slater, who in addition to being one of the seven plaintiffs publishes, said Carlisle’s remarks are “outrageous”. “Our attorneys originally estimated that the final hearing for our federal lawsuit would take place last November. It is only because of the delaying tactics ordered by Carlisle that it will not be heard until nearly a year later. He has had the city’s attorneys hold the Administrative Record until ordered to produce it by Judge Wallace Tashima. He has had them file worthless delaying motions such as the one to dismiss certain, but not all, plaintiffs. But for Carlisle’s delaying tactics this would have been settled last November at a far lower cost to taxpayers.”

Carlisle’s delaying tactics will incur city construction and repair costs of over $200 million, Slater said.

Carlisle would not address what would happen to the project if Cayetano beats him in the 2012 mayoral election and cancels the project.

However, Cayetano had fiery words for the current mayor, noting Carlisle does not seem to know what is happening with his own rail project, one of his administration’s so called major accomplishment.

“Now that Carlisle has a real election facing him, he is desperately trying to learn more about the rail system he has ignored for too long. A month or so ago during a speech he was giving, a person in the audience asked whether the federal government would cover cost overruns. He said ‘I don’t know’ and had to ask Toru Hamayasu who was in the audience to answer the question for him. This is like a person not knowing whether his bank account is covered by the FDIC. Embarrassing. He has deferred to his subordinates so much that on one occasion Toru Hamayasu announced publicly that if funds fell short the city might have to ask for an extension of the 1/2% GET rail surcharge,” Cayetano said. “Once when asked whether he supported rail, Carlisle replied he would like to see rail everywhere — Windward Oahu, North Shore and right up to his doorstep. Perhaps he was joking — as he seems very fond of doing — but the dire consequences of rail on our people and city is no joking matter.”

Cayetano joined City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi and Chair Ernie Martin in criticizing Carlisle’s managing director, Douglas Chin, for independently increasing the city’s 20 percent debt limit restriction for the rail project in late October without first informing the mayor or the city council.

Photo: Emily Metcalf

“The recent admission by City officials that Carlisle was not told about the move to raise the 20 percent debt ceiling set by the City Council to accommodate rail are both signs of disrespect and speak volumes about Carlisle’s inattention to city issues. No person in my cabinet would have done such things without clearing it with me first,” Cayetano said.

But the mayor said he has a different style of management that includes trusting his managing director, who he has worked with since 2006, and his other cabinet members: “We both are (in charge of the city),” Carlisle said in response to a Hawaii Reporter question about who is running the city.”This is not an unusual decision. There are big decisions that go on all the time by people who are in ever single department. And if you spend your life micromanaging everybody, you are not going to be much of a manager.”

Carlisle, who has traveled extensively since his election last year, largely to check out other rail systems and to meet with federal officials about the rail project, touted the rail system in the Philippines in his recent state of the city address and at the Thursday press conference as one to emulate.

“I had the chance to ride a successful elevated rail transit system in one of Honolulu’s prominent sister cities and Asia-Pacific neighbors: Manila. This vibrant and energetic waterfront metropolis suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion and vehicle pollution in the entire world, but residents have a clean, reliable and safe alternative, and they use it by the thousands.  While swarms of cars and buses jockey for position on choked thoroughfares, the most recent portion of the rail system whisks passengers along overhead and completely avoids the turmoil.  It’s a system that works. For passengers who rely on the system every day, Manila without rail transit would be unthinkable,” Carlisle said.

But Cayetano, who has traveled to the Philippines more than a half a dozen times to visit his relatives, said Carlisle’s comparison of the elevate rail system in Manila to Honolulu is “ridiculous.”  

“Manila has a population of approximately 10 million, a small middle class and approximately 70% of the people are too poor to buy a car. Apparently those facts escaped him when he described in his state of the city address how much he enjoyed the rail ride over the squalor and poverty below,” Cayetano said. 

“Honolulu has a population of 900,000, a large middle class and most of its residents can afford to buy at least one two cars. A better comparison is the Tren Urbano rail line in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an island, its residents are Americans most of whom can buy a car, and Parsons Brinkerhoff, the same engineering firm the City hired to do its rail project, did the Tren Urbano project.  Result?  A 113% construction cost overrun, actual ridership is only 40% of the projected average weekday ridership of 115,000.  Consequence:  taxes were increased to cover the deficit. Carlisle reminds me of the story of Nero — fiddling away while the city fell apart,” Cayetano added.

University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth

Carlisle said the city’s rail plan is fiscally sound: Rail contracts have come in $300 million under budget and the total revenue from 5 years of a GET surcharge is higher than expected during the last 3 quarters when the city administrators were concerned about an economic downturn. He also maintains the his administration has followed the law, something that will be proven in court.

But Roth, Cayetano and the other plaintiffs said if just one of the variables goes against the City, the rail project will stop dead in its tracks; the City will have wasted hundreds of millions of local taxpayer money; and many millions more will have to be spent undoing the construction that the City is now racing to do.

“Carlisle says he wants to avoid wasting money, but then he decides to spend hundreds of millions on construction that will have to be torn down when he loses in court later this year.  If that’s not a waste of money, what is it?” Roth said.