A federal appeals court and federal judge handed the city dual victories Tuesday that keeps its $5.3 billion fixed-rail project on track.
In a 25-page decision, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco affirmed a lower court decision that the city adequately studied alternatives to rail.
Click here to read the full decision.
Rail opponents that included businessman Cliff Slater and former Gov. Ben Cayetano sued to stop the project, claiming the city did not adequately study potential alternatives to fixed rail, such as managed lanes or bus rapid transit.
In its ruling Tuesday, the appeals court also said the city "made a good faith and reasonable effort to identify known archeological sites along the proposed project route and developed an appropriate plan for dealing with such sites that may be discovered during construction."
Meanwhile, in a separate 14-page ruling, Judge A. Wallace Tashima said building a $960 million tunnel along Beretania Street would cause more harm to historical properties, such as the Oahu Rail and Land Company building on the cusp of Chinatown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It was not arbitrary and capricious for Defendants to have concluded that the Tunnel Alternative would use the OR&L parcel; therefore, the Tunnel Alternative is not a feasible and prudent avoidance alternative," wrote Tashima.
After digesting the full impact of the two federal court rulings, plaintiffs held a news conference saying they have exhausted all of their legal options to stop the rail line from being built.
"Our preliminary decision is that there's little likelihood of us prevailing in any further legal action. Therefore, today's rulings conclude our legal fight," said Slater.
Former federal Judge Walter Heen, one of the plaintiffs trying to stop the rail project, said any appeal of the rulings would have to cross the very high threshold of what "arbitrary and capricious" means.
"We did not agree, and we still do not agree with the conclusions (the city) made, or the studies and programs they based their decisions on, but we could not show that it was 'arbitrary and capricious,'" Heen told reporters.
Tuesday's court rulings remove all legal obstacles that stood in the way of the rail line from being fully built. An injunction issued by Tashima in November, 2012 that prevented the city from acquiring property in the fourth and final phase of the project has now been been stricken. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation must acquire 16 parcels, 91 partial parcels and five easements in the so-called "City Center," which stretches from Middle Street to the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The rail line begins in East Kapolei off of Kualaka'i Parkway.
HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas said property acquisition had been delayed by at least two months while awaiting the court's decision.
"We're already behind, but we think we can make up that lost time," he said. "We've got some work ahead of us."
Slater thanked supporters, who assisted in trying to stop the rail line, and said he and other plaintiffs are proud to have brought "closer public attention and scrutiny" to the project. He predicted the rail line would eventually go over budget and lead to higher property taxes and fees, which he says has already begun.
"That's why they're looking to get the additional tax from the legislature, and anything else that they can find that will bring money into city hall," he said.
Meanwhile, Alexandra Avery, president for The Outdoor Circle, released a statement, saying rail would destroy Oahu's pristine ocean views.
"Outdoor Circle members have advocated for the protection of Hawaii's viewplanes for more than 100 years, and continue to feel strongly that less invasive alternatives like Bus Rapid Transit and managed lanes are superior to the already-antiquated technology of the elevated rail system," said Avery.
However, Grabauskas believes the rail project will be a success and believes Oahu residents will soon clamor for extensions to the rail line.
"I think the first demands we're going to get is how quickly we can expand to Kapolei and to UH Manoa," said Grabauskas.
The city spent about $3.5 million in legal fees in state and federal court. Rail opponents led by Slater exhausted about $1 million, most of that through donations.
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