Sierra Club reconsiders its stance on rail transit

Published: Apr. 2, 2012 at 9:50 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 3, 2012 at 3:36 AM HST
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Robert Harris; Director of Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter
Robert Harris; Director of Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The Sierra Club, Hawaii's largest grassroots environmental organization, is re-considering its position on the city's $5.3 billion rail transit project.

In 2008, the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter came out in support of a steel-on-steel rail transit proposal, but has never fully endorsed the city's project.

Robert Harris, the director of the Sierra Club in the islands, said that could change.

"We are re-evaluating our current position," Harris told Hawaii News Now Monday.

He said the Sierra Club is surveying its 4,000 Oahu members about rail this month and will hold a membership meeting later this month to decide whether to change its position on rail.

"It's strictly listening.  It's advisory.  We have an executive committee that ultimately will make the decision of how to go forward.  And the idea is we're sort of taking a temperature gage," Harris said, noting the group will make a "careful and deliberate" decision.

The Sierra Club's Hawaii is located in a one-room office downtown in the Richards Street YWCA, where Harris is the only full-time employee.  He relies on one part-timer and 100 active volunteers statewide.

A poll completed earlier this year called the Sierra Club's decision a potential "game changer" on rail, with the ability to sway many people's minds for or against the project.

"We do have a long track record in Hawaii, so I'm not surprised to see that the club is considered influential in these things.  We're sort of an objective third party," Harris said.

John White, executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership, a supporter of the rail project, said, "We hope that the sierra club and their members will move beyond election day rhetoric and really focus in on the facts of this project."

Pacific Resource Partnership, known as PRP, is a nonprofit funded by the Carpenter's union. PRP surveyed 700 Oahu residents in late January and found 52 percent of them oppose rail transit, according to White. Roughly 48 percent of those surveyed supported rail in the poll by a San Francisco-based firm.

That poll and Hawaii News Now's poll with similar findings were in the field in late January, right after transit foe Ben Cayetano, the former governor, announced his campaign for mayor, so that could have skewed results against the project.

"The findings of our poll really spoke to our need to tell the human side of the rail story in terms that people can understand," White said. "That it's going to save people money. That it's going to take more cars off the road."

A poll by The Honolulu Advertiser and Hawaii News Now released in February found 53 percent of those surveyed want the rail project to stop, while 43 percent of those who answered the poll wanted rail to proceed.  That was a shift from last year, when 49 percent approved of the rail project and 45 percent were against transit.

Political observers said no matter what decision the Sierra Club makes on rail, it will alienate some of its membership, losing donations and possibly members in the process.

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