Pitfalls remain as rail resumes construction

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Sep 16 2013 06:34:00 PM HST

Construction started again for the $5.3 billion rail project after a 13-month delay.

East Kapolei, Hawaii -

After sitting idle for the past 13-months, construction of the first half of Honolulu’s elevated rail line resumed early Monday morning with more than 150 Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. workers converging on empty farmland in East Kapolei.

The controversial project was stopped in August of last year after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the city was required to perform an archeological inventory survey along the entire 20-mile route, instead of four separate phases. With the AIS recently approved by the State Historic Preservation Division and a special management area permit in place, Kiewit construction crews are moving at a frenetic pace.

“We're going to have over 150 people back to work this very first day, several hundred more in the next couple of weeks, and then ultimately we'll ramp up to about 1,600 employees just in the next couple of months,” said Dan Grabauskas, executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. “So, we're looking forward to getting people back to work and getting this project done.”

HART expects an average of three columns to be built every week, with a total of 422 columns being built for the first 10 miles of the elevated rail line, which stretches from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Before construction was halted more than a year ago, crews erected 16 of the columns.

“Once the project is done, we're going to be living differently on this island for generations to come,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “Closer to home and work, preserving the outlying lands for ag and making sure that we have middle class housing for people in this community.”

However, a lawsuit filed in federal court in May, 2011 continues to hang over the project and could result in construction being stopped yet again. Still, Grabauskas and other rail supporters remain confident any ruling will go in the city’s favor.

“We think that we have very good answers and are very confident in our answers to respond to the court's challenges and concerns,” said Grabauskas. “We believe that we're going to be in a really good position to go forward and have this project fully operational in 2019.”

But rail opponent Cliff Slater, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit against the city, believes it would be prudent for the city to delay the restart of construction until all legal issues surrounding the rail project are resolved.

“If they waited another couple of months so they would have a firm understanding of the outcome of the lawsuit, we think that could save a lot money,” Slater told KITV4.

To date, delay claims related to the 13-month work stoppage have cost taxpayers $30 to $35 million. Last week, HART said it costs an additional $200,000 every day the rail project doesn’t get built. And with that in mind, Caldwell said he fully supports the transit agency’s decision to move forward.

“If we waited for every lawsuit to be resolved, every appeal to be finalized, we'd be waiting forever for this project,” said the mayor.

Under an agreement reached between the city and lawsuit plaintiffs, HART agreed to tear down any rail columns already built if the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rules the project whitewashed the study of alternative technologies. A hearing on whether the city followed mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act was held last month before a three-judge panel.

"The key issue is irreparable damage, damage you can't repair,” said Slater. “They said we can repair it, so we didn't have a case for filing an injunction."

Even if Slater were to lose on the issue of alternative studies, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima could still order the city to build a Beretania Street tunnel through the city center. Such a tunnel would lessen the impacts to sensitive cultural sites, such as native Hawaiian burials, while taking the rail line away from Honolulu’s waterfront.

“I’m personally opposed to it both on economic and environmental grounds, but for many of our supporters, the environmental issues are the key ones,” said Slater. “Having that run along the waterfront was the big issue.”

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