Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and transit authority Executive Director Dan Grabauskas announced Tuesday the city has complied with a federal judge’s ruling last year that required additional study of the $5.3 billion rail project.
"We believe that we have really satisfied not only what the court said, but beyond that, what the public has really asked for in terms of all the transparency and openness to get these documents out there and done," said Grabauskas during a news conference.
Last November, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled the city must conduct further studies on the elevated rail line’s impact to Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako and whether a Beretania Street tunnel that takes the train to the University of Hawaii is a better option. The judge also required the city to identify traditional cultural properties (TCPs) along the city center that would qualify for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Tashima’s ruling resulted in the transit authority conducting a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), which was completed Sept. 30. Early Tuesday, the city transmitted a notice of compliance to Judge Tashima, stating it had complied with his order.
“We supplemented the EIS not by just attaching more documents, but by doing a full-blown supplemental EIS,” said the mayor. “We went beyond the call making sure that we showed the court that we did everything we absolutely needed to do.”
According to the supplemental EIS, the rail line will result in no negative impacts to Mother Waldron Park, while a Beretania Street tunnel would cost $950 million and add two years to construction. The city also failed to identify any TCPs in the city center.
With those three findings in hand, Caldwell made a plea to rail opponents to drop their lawsuit against the project.
“My request at this point is to ask those who want to bring more lawsuits to slow the project down to step aside,” said the mayor. “Allow us to complete this project, not to run up additional attorneys’ fees."
However, Cliff Slater and other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit say the debate over rail is far from over. Slater says the lawsuit is now in the hands of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which must decide if the city adequately studied alternatives to rail, such as high-occupancy lanes and bus rapid transit. A three-judge panel with the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in San Francisco Aug. 15. So far, the city has spent $3.1 million on legal fees related to the federal lawsuit.
"It's in the hands of the courts at the moment,” said Slater. “Even if we were even thinking about stepping aside, I doubt there's anything we could do to stop the court at this moment."
Slater now has 30 days to decide if he’ll challenge the findings of the supplemental EIS. If he does, the rail project faces another hearing before Judge Tashima.
“We’ll certainly file comments on it, I mean we always do,” said Slater. “For people whose only concern is the environment, the Beretania Street tunnel is of course far more preferable to going along the waterfront.”
Slater also expressed skepticism the rail line would have no adverse effects to Mother Waldron Park, and noted noise as the most obvious concern.
“Anybody that’s been anywhere near an elevated rail line knows the amount of noise it creates, and this one is every three minutes in each direction,” said Slater.
According the supplemental EIS, the rail line will utilize sound-reducing features that will reduce noise levels from the metal tracks to 56 decibels, which is quieter than the existing ambient noise levels at Mother Waldron Park.
In the past, Caldwell has expressed concern about other aspects of the rail project, in particular what two elevated rail stations along Nimitz Highway would do to view planes of Honolulu Harbor. However, the mayor stated unequivocally Tuesday he remains opposed to altering the 20 mile long route from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
"I do not support changing the route in any way. I think it's the proper route,” said Caldwell. “It's just how do we make it better in the urban core."
Grabauskas said rail stations have already been redesigned to be smaller and more compact, and the plan right now is to have stations conform to their surrounding areas.
"If we can have the stations sort of blend into the urban landscape that's developing, even through Kakaako, that's really our goal," he said.