Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

2012 in review: A pivotal year for Honolulu rail transit

December 28, 2012

morning commuteIt’s been an eventful year from nearly every news angle. 2012 saw tightly contested races of both the Olympic and electoral variety. Headlines were dominated by stories of devastating loss domestically (mass shootings, a superstorm) and internationally (Syria, Libya, Israel/Gaza).

If that’s not enough to think about, consider the humanitarian crises we largely ignored in 2012: Myanmar, DR Congo, and Yemen to name a few. In the past year, we lost Trayvon Martin, Whitney Houston, Neil Armstrong, Ravi Shankar and Dan Inouye, but Joseph Kony is still at large.

What a year. What a world.

Closer to home, 2012 marked several major victories for Honolulu’s long-debated rail transit project. When construction began in April, a familiar band of rail opponents pointed to four looming obstacles, each with potential to sink the project before operations can begin as scheduled in 2019:

  1. The 2012 mayoral election. Ben Cayetano made opposition to rail the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to scrap the project if elected. Outcome: Cayetano lost the election to his pro-rail opponent (Kirk Caldwell), but said he would continue the fight against rail. While it wasn’t the first time city voters defeated a distinctively anti-rail mayoral candidate (i.e. Panos Prevedouros in 2008 and 2010), it was the first election since construction began and the last one prior to the arrival of federal funds.
  2. Federal funding. In the months and years leading up to December 19, 2012, rail opponents focused tremendous attention on the question of whether Honolulu’s anticipated federal funds would arrive. Outcome: The project secured $1.55 billion from the Federal Transit Administration, but prominent rail critic Cliff Slater downplayed the news saying, “This doesn’t change anything.”
  3. The City Council. Six of the nine council seats were up for election in 2012, with rail as the dominant campaign issue. Outcome: Oahu voters elected pro-rail candidates in 5 out of 6 races (Ann Kobayashi holds a somewhat complicated position on rail), while the other three council members also support rail. Vocal tea-party incumbent and rail opponent Tom Berg was defeated by a 25% margin, and earlier this month used one of his final votes in office as the sole dissenter in the council’s 8-1 decision to accept federal funds for rail.
  4. Lawsuits, the final frontier. Last year, rail opponents (led by Cayetano and Slater) sued the city to halt the entire project while archaeological surveys were completed on the project’s fourth and final segment, although surveys were already completed on the first three segments as per the FTA’s Record of Decision. Even so, construction was halted in late August at an estimated cost of $10 million per month of delay while the case went before a federal judge. In the meantime, survey trenches were completed ahead of schedule along the entire 20-mile route. Outcome: Yesterday, the judge upheld the FTA’s Record of Decision, ruling that Honolulu can proceed with construction on the first three phases while working to resolve feasibility/design issues on the fourth phase. This probably won’t be the end of anti-rail litigation, but it should be the last time construction is halted because of it.

A few short months ago, the fate of rail hung in the balance on all four fronts. But after going 4 for 4 in 2012, the project continues steadily forward as the year draws to a close. Amid some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion, 2012 was a banner year in the struggle for a greener, cleaner, more reliable, efficient, equitable and sustainable infrastructure for Honolulu’s future.