Fight over rail reaches new heights

Ken Wong
Ken Wong

By Leland Kim - bio | email and Mari-Ela David - bio | email

DOWNTOWN HONOLULU (KHNL) - A pro-rail group pops up, to do battle with "Stop Rail Now." It's the biggest public works project in Honolulu history, and a new group is pushing to make sure it moves forward.

"'Go Rail Go' is our grassroots effort of the silent majority who's had enough and said we want to have a say in the future for rail support," said Maeda Timson, a pro-rail supporter and president of the organization.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann's plan for a multi-billion dollar light rail project has become a political lightning rod: people either clearly in favor of it, or clearly opposed to it.

The group "Stop Rail Now" was formed several months ago, to oppose the project. Now, there's "Go Rail Go," an organization that will work in support of rail.

Group members say they're the silent majority on the island who support a light rail system. They say they're sick of -- what they call -- misinformation and misleading claims from the folks at "Stop Rail Now."

Like most people on the island, these folks are sick of traffic.

"We hear people complaining almost every month about the congestion, the traffic," said Timson. "And if you have one accident, now it could take you two hours to get to work."

Timson lives in Makakilo and supports a light rail system.

"It gives us the alternative," she said. "We don't need to clog up the roads any more and I think that's the important thing."

Ken Wong lives in Kaimuki. Even though the rail won't reach his neighborhood, he supports it.

They are members of a recently formed group called "Go Rail Go." They say the folks at "Stop Rail Now" are misleading the public by saying things like the rail project will bankrupt the city and is five times as expensive as elevated toll lanes.

"The rail transit is a 20-mile transit," said Wong. "What they are proposing is four miles so that's why they say it's one fifth of the cost."

Wong adds, unlike the rail project, toll roads won't have $900 million in federal funding.

"They can say all they want one-fifth of the cost but no one's going to fund the building of these things and it's not one-fifth of the cost," he said.

They even have some former anti-rail converts.

"My first premise was why do we need mass transit?" said Jennie Chun, a former supporter of "Stop Rail Now." "I'd like to have them improve the bus system, add more buses, and add more routes. But then I find out from the head bus man that it's impossible; the city is saturated."

Chun signed the petition to get rail on the November ballot, but now she's had a change of heart.

"My grandchildren, I have 14 of them and we have 20 cars in my one family and that's going to be multiplied when they grow up," she said.

This contentious debate will determine the future of Oahu's transportation for many generations to come.

On the other side, anti-rail protesters have stepped up their fight. "Stop Rail Now" threatens to take legal action if the taxpayer-funded radio ads promoting rail, continue to run.

If they're not pulled off the airwaves, "Stop Rail Now" says it plans to sue the City and County of Honolulu for fraud.

Wednesday afternoon, group members were at Honolulu Hale to hand deliver a letter, outlining their demands.

As they were about to drop it off at the city clerk's office, they bumped into Mayor Mufi Hannemann. "Stop Rail Now" tried to give the letter to him, but the mayor ignored them. Anti-rail protesters say the ads are deceptive and broadcast false information. For example, they say transit systems are not proven to ease congestion.

"It would appear that traffic congestion gets worse in places where they put in rail systems," said Cliff Slater, an anti-rail advocate.

"This utilization of taxpayers' money to be putting out false information has got to stop," said John Carroll, another anti-rail advocate.

"Stop Rail Now" is giving the mayor until Monday to pull the taxpayer-funded ads. Otherwise, the group says it will take the city to court and try to get a temporary restraining order.

Late Wednesday afternoon a public relations firm hired by the city released the following statement:

"The radio advertisements produced and broadcast by the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project and paid for with tax dollars, are factual, accurate and were researched and reviewed extensively to ensure that accuracy."

The statement goes on to say the spots are intended to educate and inform the public as mandated by the Federal Transit Administration, and under the National Environmental Policy Act.