Will a $5B rail system save paradise or destroy it?

HONOLULU -- Everything you've heard about Oahu, home of Hawaii's capital and the North Shore and Waikiki beaches, is true.

Its blue waters shimmer radiantly in the afternoon. Its top resorts are cathedrals of luxury, paying homage to the sunset and the breeze. And the famous waves -- the playground for the world's greatest surfers -- are synchronized in the vast Pacific Ocean.

But there's trouble in paradise: Bumper-to-bumper traffic here rivals gridlock in Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Washington, D.C.

An 11-mile car ride from the airport to downtown Waikiki can take more than an hour in rush hour. And driving from the airport to downtown Honolulu -- a 4- to 5-mile stretch -- can eat up an hour.

Cars rule in Oahu -- which is the Hawaiian word for "gathering place" -- and gather on three highways, the H-1, H-2 and H-3, that can get the island's 1 million residents to their homes and shopping centers. Although policymakers say they plan to expand access for bicyclists and pedestrians, sidewalks are rare beyond the city.

A further "carmageddon" may be coming, as scheduled major road maintenance is expected to further clog the thruways. The state Department of Transportation is planning significant work along H-1's aging eastbound lanes. DOT is warning residents to expect massive delays.

But relief might be on the way.

For more than 40 years, there's been talk here about building a rail line to transport people into the city. There have been several attempts to approve transit, but all have failed.


For the past two years, there's been a credible effort to build a $5.3 billion, 20-mile train on an elevated track, a project that's backed by $1.55 billion from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Project managers with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, or HART, insist the line would create thousands of jobs, while paving the way for millions of dollars in luxury transit-oriented communities, upscale retail and a reliable commute for most of the service industry.

"I think it's a revolution that's happening here; this is an awakening," said Dan Grabauskas, HART's executive director. "People should be keeping an eye on what's happening here, because I think we'll be setting a new standard for urban development."

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff is a staunch supporter of the project, and so are most business owners, developers, luxury retailers and government leaders.

But standing in HART's way is a small yet highly influential group of concerned citizens whose chief complaint is that a train in Oahu would forever strip the island of its essence of paradise.

The group, HonoluluTraffic, has been advancing alternatives to the project, including the idea of building a highway tunnel to the north of Honolulu that would connect the suburban neighborhoods west of the city with the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus. They also promote expanding bus access along common pockets of congestion, among other alternatives.

Since HART picked up momentum, the group's leaders have been aggressively laying out their case against the project online ( and in the courts. The plaintiffs have sued FTA, arguing that an environmental impact statement the agency prepared with city officials did not consider every reasonable alternative to the project.

Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard their appeal of a December 2012 judgment issued in the state's U.S. District Court.

The plaintiffs include former Gov. Ben Cayetano (D), who lost a bid to become mayor of Honolulu last year, and a high-profile University of Hawaii law professor, Randy Roth. A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs, which Grabauskas is obviously betting against, could delay the project further if it requires HART to revisit its environmental impact statement or submit additional reports addressing any alternatives to the current plan.

That ruling could come as early as this month.

Last year, HART commenced construction of the rail line, erecting columns along undeveloped land west of Honolulu, but Roth and his partners led a lawsuit that managed to delay the project a year. HART officials, as it turned out, had not conducted an archaeological review of the entire project. They had not reviewed the entire area along the transit line. It was uncertain whether construction crews would come across ancestral burials of native Hawaiians, a delicate issue for natives who consider such burial grounds sacred.

Last month, the State Historic Preservation Division approved the project's new archaeological survey, allowing for construction through Aloha Stadium near Pearl Harbor Naval Base to restart. Last week, the Honolulu City Council approved a Special Management Area Use permit, essentially allowing construction to resume this week. Grabauskas said he expects to complete that stretch of the rail line by 2017. The entire line could be completed by 2019.

"The Honolulu Rail project will help to transform our city, revitalize our local economy, increase tourism and reduce our reliance on foreign oil," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

'On time and on budget'

The transit project would make 20 stops, beginning at the small town of Kapolei and moving along to Waipahu, Pearl City and Pearl Harbor, Honolulu International Airport and downtown Honolulu, and ending at the Ala Moana mall, a luxury shopping center.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, a transportation firm with offices throughout the world, has been the prime contractor for the project, preparing, among other things, the financial plan. According to the firm, that plan included development of the cash flow model, projection of excise tax revenues, and risk and uncertainty analyses.

FTA approved the project's preliminary engineering proposal in October 2009 and recognized the project in the fiscal 2011 "New Starts" report, a major capital investment program at the agency that provided the city with $1.55 billion.

In December, federal officials held an elaborate ceremony on Capitol Hill, days after Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died, to officially mark FTA's commitment to back the project. Inouye, the most powerful politician in Hawaii for half a century, was a longtime supporter of the project because he said he hated getting stuck in traffic.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), another backer of the project who is challenging Schatz in a primary contest next year to succeed Inouye, was at the event. She said she remembers then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood being uncomfortable about proceeding so soon after Inouye's death. But she said Inouye's camp insisted that LaHood go ahead.

"Though, sadly, Senator Inouye cannot be here with us today, this agreement is a testament to his tireless advocacy on behalf of his state and its people," LaHood said at the event.

The project was slated to receive $250 million in fiscal 2013, but that amount was reduced to $236.2 million due to automatic spending reductions under sequestration, according to FTA officials. If, for whatever reason, there is a dramatic decrease to the federal funding obligation, project managers and proponents acknowledge that could be a game changer.

The rest of the money for the project comes from a general excise tax. Thus far, project supervisor Grabauskas boasts that funding is secured, and he is adamant that it won't be over budget. Nearly everywhere you turn in the transit authority's headquarters on Alakea Street in downtown Honolulu, Grabauskas has put up stickers that say: "On time and on budget."

A majority of residents interviewed for this article said they would welcome an alternative to cars and buses downtown, notwithstanding significant concerns over the project's price tag and archaeological sensitivities.

"I think they should do it. Traffic is bad. They should just do it," said Afilia Mackenzie, an employee at a coffee shop in Waikiki who is originally from New Jersey.

Endless summer (gridlock?)

In last year's mayoral contest here, Cayetano, a relatively popular governor from 1994 to 2002, campaigned for the job by promising to stop the project. Kirk Caldwell, the pro-rail candidate, won the race, which was marked by attacks on Cayetano's career. Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), a former congressman, also supports the project. Both the mayor and the governor would not comment directly for this article.

Despite Cayetano's loss, which was viewed by some observers as a referendum on the project, the opposition remains vigilant.

Roth, the law professor who won credibility with many Hawaiians by exposing the mismanagement of the $10 billion trust of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, 19th-century Hawaiian royalty, is actively leading the anti-rail campaign. The Bishop Estate fiasco turned out to be biggest political scandal in the state's history, and Roth helped uncover dozens of prominent contractors who would were later convicted for making illegal political contributions.

"Before the Bishop Estate trustees fell, corrupt officials felt confident they could act with impunity," wrote David Shapiro in the introduction of "Broken Trust," Roth's summary of the scandal, which was voted book of the year in 2007 by the Hawaii Book Publishers Association.

In Hawaii, a great number of residents love to use the phrase "Aloha 'aina," meaning "love of the land," when describing the passion they have for the Aloha State. The phrase comes across as vague to recent transplants and some tourists, but to Roth and other longtime residents, it serves as a clear reminder that they are living in paradise.

Roth and Cayetano argue constantly that the rail project could fall victim to the corruption seen during the Bishop Estate scandal. The two also insist Oahu is simply too small -- structurally and financially -- to accommodate a train. Taxpayers would be stuck covering any cost overruns (common for projects of this magnitude), and long-term maintenance costs will drown the government in debt, they say. Hawaii's public works system has endured financial troubles, and corruption at the city and state level has fractured the public's confidence over the years.

"I think it would adversely affect our tourism industry. I think it would adversely affect the quality of life in Hawaii, not just because of its impact on the environment, but I think financially it would be such a drain to the city that we'll have some of the Detroit problem, having bills to pay that are simply, if not beyond the ability of the tax base, certainly going to be harder to find the money," Roth said during a recent interview in his office at the law school, which has a distant window view of the Waikiki skyline.

Roth, Cayetano and their HonoluluTraffic partners believe enhancing the bus system would offer relief from road congestion, while rail, which would provide an alternative to cars, would do little to take vehicles off the road.

Victim of its success?

Honeymooning in Hawaii is an American rite of passage. In the coming years, people arriving at the airport might be able to reach their hotels along Waikiki by train.

Traffic has already affected nightlife in Waikiki. The popular Mexican-based Señor Frogs bar and restaurant, famous for its frat-boy party scene, could not sustain its operations here partly because patrons could not access the venue. Some service workers, like Charles Wayls, a part-time parking attendant at the Marriott in Waikiki, say they sometimes leave their homes at around 4 a.m. to avoid traffic and arrive at work before 7 a.m.

"I sleep in my car sometimes. It's not fun, but I have to do it," Wayls said.

Even along the calmer North Shore, a growing number of those chill surfers are complaining to officials that they are fed up with the traffic jams around the island.

About two decades ago, Honolulu and Waikiki experienced a development boom of epic proportions that would eventually result in an impressive skyline, and Honolulu now resembles Pittsburgh or Phoenix. Honolulu political activist Tracy Ryan, executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii, a drug-prevention nonprofit, said the rail project cannot strip Waikiki of its natural state, as Roth's camp contends, because "that horse left the barn a long time ago."

Today, dozens of luxury retailers -- Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Rolex -- and rows of high-end hotels and resorts eclipse Waikiki's shoreline, turning the area into an elaborate outdoor mall.

The tourism board has excelled at promoting Oahu to the world. Visitors, mainly from Japan, the mainland United States, Australia and Europe, continue to flock here to golf, surf, shop or play polo. New condos, commercial space and residences are under construction to accommodate new residents and the time-share dwellers.

"When you look at [the rail project] in its totality, there are more positive aspects," said Hawaii Chamber of Commerce President Sherry Menor-McNamara. "The visitor industry is very important to us. We are part of the United States, and we have many visitors from the mainland."

There's a mystique about the islands, 2,300 miles away from California, that make up the 50th state of the union. The serenity of the ocean is infectious. People here wonder out loud how they became lucky enough to live in paradise.

This mystique may fascinate the world, but the growing population and endless influx of tourists has resulted in clogged roads and a growing degree of road rage. There's something not-so-Aloha about that.

What's ironic is the groups for and against the rail project believe their efforts will preserve paradise.

"For 40 years, it's been discussed how we solve the problem of mobility, and we've looked at a lot of different options here, and I think we finally landed on what I think is the right and best option," Grabauskas said.

Cayetano disagrees: "For politicians, if you're for a project like this, it makes you look forward-thinking, visionary and all of that. But if you start to look deeper and consider the cost and the failures in other cities, the ridership doesn't meet the projections."

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