Honolulu rail project up in the air, again

KAPOLEI, Hawaii — For all those visitors to Waikiki Beach who see Honolulu as a South Sea paradise, Maeda Timson would like to invite them to climb into her minivan and drive for a moment in her world.

She leaves her home in this fast-growing suburb every morning at 6:20 for what has become an hour and a half commute to her job as vice president at Bank of Hawaii in downtown Honolulu. Sometimes it takes two hours to go the 23 miles.

“Where’s the quality of life?” Timson said.

She has plenty of company sweating on the H-1 freeway in the sultry morning heat. Hotel workers, construction foremen and teachers all live out here in Honolulu’s “second city,” a land of Wal-Marts, tract houses and the county’s newest college campus. A few remaining farm fields are already master-planned for 50,000 more homes.


Timson leads a citizens group backing a long-debated plan for an elevated rail system running 20 miles from east Kapolei to central Honolulu. After four decades of discussion, fits and starts, the $5.2-billion project — the biggest and most contentious municipal endeavor in Hawaii’s history — had its ceremonial groundbreaking in 2011.

The most powerful politicians in the state posed with shovels. Pads were graded for huge concrete supports in the former sugarcane fields near Timson’s home on the county’s west end. Last December, federal authorities said the project was clear to proceed to the final design phase that precedes the receipt of $1.55 billion in federal funds.

A month later, Ben Cayetano — Hawaii’s former governor, a legendary politician who had slipped from public life and was writing his memoirs — announced he was coming out of retirement and running for mayor of Honolulu with one primary goal in mind: Stop the rail.

The 72-year-old entered the race with a robust lead in the polls, pledging to save the city from “a wall of concrete snaking along its waterfront.” Bucking the moneyed power structure that was so much his milieu during eight years in the statehouse, Cayetano has been appearing at chili-and-rice feeds in school gyms with PowerPoint slides of massive rail tracks looming in front of the famed Aloha Tower.


“This is the most expensive per-capita rail project in U.S. history,” he said.

His opponent, former state House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, said the city would be foolish to squander the years of political haggling and millions of dollars already devoted to a project that will take 40,000 cars a day off the streets on an island that has more than 733,000 vehicles. Rail, he says, will foster the kind of attractive, high-density development needed to avoid contaminating the emerald hills and valleys on the rest of the island with new suburbs and freeways.

More than 953,000 people live on the 44-mile-long island of Oahu, but three-quarters of them are scrunched onto the narrow urban plain around Honolulu between the coast and the mountains. A single east-west freeway runs through most of this urban side, and traversing it can be formidable: Honolulu drivers waste an average of 58 hours a year stuck in congestion, a recent study found, worse than Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Cayetano has proposed a $1.5-billion plan calling for bigger buses, dedicated transit lanes, underpasses and a two-mile elevated freeway connecting to an existing flyover near the airport. He said the rail plan is an expensive giveaway to engineering firms and construction contractors that will mar views near the waterfront while doing little to improve traffic.


“This one is particularly stupid, in my opinion, because it’s elevated. Have you seen it? It doesn’t make sense for a city that’s next to the water to have an elevated rail system,” said Cayetano, who portrays the Nov. 6 election as a “David vs. Goliath” battle over a project that has gained the momentum of a locomotive.

Caldwell, 60, dismisses the bus-oriented plan as half-baked and pricier than Cayetano makes it sound. Caldwell often reminds voters of how Honolulu came close to building a rail system in 1992 and changed its mind at the last minute — only to see hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for Honolulu diverted to other cities.

This time, Honolulu has adopted a 0.5% excise tax surcharge, about a third of it paid by tourists, which will raise the city’s $3.36 billion share of the project, twice the federal government’s share. A ballot measure on the idea of a rail plan passed narrowly in 2008, and two years later, 63% of the voters agreed to create a transit authority to build a rail system.

“Now here we are at the 11th hour, we collected the money. If we in this election kill rail the federal government is not going to hand over that $1.5 billion [in rail funding] to a mayor who says he wants to kill rail,” Caldwell said. “They’re going to say: ‘You guys are crazy out there. Every 20 years, you say you want to start this thing, and then you run away. We’ve had it.’ ”


The mayor’s position is a powerful one, overseeing both the city and county of Honolulu. Even rail advocates say Cayetano, by appointing members of the transit authority, rejecting supplemental grants and planting doubt in the minds of federal funding authorities, could kill the rail project.

“It would likely be death by a thousand cuts, but it would still be death,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which has endorsed Caldwell, said in an editorial.

The race pits Cayetano, a grass-roots, blue-collar-style Democrat who grew up in the bruising working class neighborhood of Kalihi, against Caldwell, a liberal progressive Democrat and former managing director of the city who lives in the wealthy hillside neighborhood of Manoa.

Labor unions and contractors have swung powerfully behind Caldwell because of the lucrative contracts associated with the rail system. Influential Republicans “who under most circumstances would ... be willing to be hanged before they would vote for Cayetano” are endorsing the feisty, liberal Democrat, said political analyst Neil Milner.


“He’s also been able to hold on to some of the groups that have always supported him — for example, the Filipino vote, even though you have a lot of Filipinos in the labor unions,” Milner said. “So what you have right now is a candidate who’s probably the closest thing to being able to stop rail than any other thing in the state, and he’s leading.”

Cayetano beat Caldwell 44% to 29% in a four-way primary in August, but the race has narrowed significantly as a well-funded pro-rail political action committee unleashed a flood of TV attack ads and direct mailings of a kind not previously seen in Hawaii. The ads resurrect a scandal involving campaign contributions from Cayetano’s last race for governor.

They fail to mention that the governor was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Cayetano last week filed a libel lawsuit against not only the PAC, but the carpenters union that allegedly funded it and the public relations firm that drafted the ads.

Another lawsuit led to an order by the Hawaii Supreme Court that halted construction on the rail project in August until additional archaeological studies are done. Transit authority officials say they hope to resume work in the next few months.


The planned opening of the first phase in 2017 can’t come soon enough for Timson, whose commute would dwindle to 17 minutes. The group she heads, Go Rail Go, says rail has become a matter not just of convenience, but of social equity: The well-heeled opponents in Manoa and east Honolulu, already close to downtown, aren’t the ones languishing on the freeway.

With the narrow corridor between the mountains and the sea already swathed in pricey homes, the Kapolei area is where the county made a deliberate choice to build lower-cost housing. It’s also where the sewer plant, trash dump and big-box stores went. The region is home to large populations of Native Hawaiians and low-income residents.

“You see, we did our part,” Timson said. “When we were designated a city, they said, ‘This will happen, but we will take care of you.’ So what happened was, Kapolei has all the ills of Oahu…. And now when there’s a chance for rail, they want to slap us in the face…. Shame on them.”