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Rail seems to be on track


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POSTED: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Honolulu's plan for a 20-mile elevated rail transit system between Kapolei and Ala Moana has reached an encouraging benchmark that should provide momentum for the city to break ground on the project by the end of this year. After decades of controversy, construction of the project should go forward on a timetable to reach completion in fewer than 10 years.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye announced this week that the Federal Transit Administration has approved the city's application to enter the preliminary engineering phase of the project. The approval was expected, but Inouye celebrated “;a critical federal milestone,”; as Honolulu faced “;fierce”; competition with other cities for federal funds amounting to nearly $39 million for the engineering. The city eventually will be eligible for $1.5 billion for its construction.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann celebrated reaching “;the home stretch,”; but other benchmarks are as critical. The city awaits final federal approval of an environmental impact statement, which is expected to be completed this month.

The city also might face threats by state legislators to reach deeply into a fund created by a tax surcharge to pay the city's share of the cost. They will be pressured by powerful state employee unions whose members face layoffs or days off from work without pay for the state to achieve a constitutionally required balanced budget during the economic crisis.

The city also could face a legal challenge from environmental groups that have opposed the project and recently maintained that a street-level system would be preferable to the elevated system. Such assertions were refuted by Richard Simonetta, who heads a 20-mile street-level system connecting Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, Ariz. Simonetta, who spoke at a Honolulu-sponsored transit symposium in June, wrote in a column on these pages two weeks ago that a street-level system would be inappropriate for Honolulu, slowing its operation and causing accidents by competing with street traffic at intersections.

The Phoenix area has “;relative low density and wide arterial streets with ample room for the trains and cars to share the right-of-way,”; he explained. Still, he added, the Phoenix system averages five collisions per month, while the elevated rail system in Vancouver, B.C., has operated for 23 years without an accident.

U.S. District Judge Helen Gilmore also has asked the City Council to move the rail away from Halekauwila Street, next to the Prince Kuhio Federal Building, to Queen Street because of security concerns; it would be at the same level as the windows of three judges' chambers. However, the rail plans meet requirements of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and can be changed if needed.

While controversy about the project remains, none of those issues should be allowed to prevent Honolulu's train from running on time.