Ninth Circuit hearing rail lawsuit today - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Ninth Circuit hearing rail lawsuit today

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former Gov. Ben Cayetano former Gov. Ben Cayetano
Donna Leong, City Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, City Corporation Counsel
Dan Grabauskas, Hart CEO Dan Grabauskas, Hart CEO
Cliff Slater, HonoluluTraffic.com Cliff Slater, HonoluluTraffic.com
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

The fate of Honolulu's $5.3 billion rail transit system is now in the hands of two Carter appointees and an Obama nominee.

A three-judge panel of Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today conducted an hour-long hearing in San Francisco this morning on an appeal by Honolulutraffic.com, which sued the city and transit officials seeking to halt construction of the 20-mile heavy rail system.

In November, Federal Judge Wallace Tashima ruled against the lawsuit by allowing the city to build and buy land along most of the project. But his order barred work along the Kalihi to Ala Moana center segment until the city completes a study of alternative routes in that area.

During today's hearing, the panel struggled with the questions of whether they had the jurisdiction to issue an injunction that would stop the project from going on. They noted that Tashima's ruling was not final and that the question of the alternative routes study is still being reviewed in Tashima's court.

But Senior Justice Mary Schroeder also questioned whether the city's adequately assessed the alternatives types to the heavy rail system such as light rail and bus rapid transit or BRT -- and not just alternative routes for the rail system.

Honolulutraffic.com -- whose members include former Gov. Ben Cayetano, local businessman Cliff Slater and University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth -- argue that the city didn't adequately address those alternatives and issued an environmental impact study after it had already decided to build a heavy rail system.

They argue that the systems will be too expensive and will not solve Hawaii's traffic problems.

City and rail transit officials say that decades of studies have gone into the planning and the system will provide a more environmentally friendly alternative to putting more vehicles on Oahu's roads.

In today's Ninth Circuit hearing, two of the three panelists have a well known track record for requiring rigorous environmental reviews of major development projects.

One of the judge -- Stephen Reinhardt -- is often considered the most liberal in the appellate system and has ruled in favor of environmentalist challenging development projects.

Another panel member -- Senior Appellate Judge Mary Schroeder -- wrote an opinion on a 2011 Ninth Circuit ruling on an Alaska case that has some parallels to the Honolulutraffic.com case.

Her opinion barred construction of a half a billion dollar highway project in Alaska because state and federal highway officials did not adequately address alternatives to the project.

The third panelist Andrew Hurwitz was appointed to the Ninth Circuit by President Obama last year.

The Ninth Circuit has agreed to take on the appeal on an expedited basis, meaning that a ruling can happen in a matter of months. Today's hearing in San Francisco was shown live on video in Honolulu federal court today.

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