'The stars aligned' to make rail possible — and that might be the problem
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the 1980s, rail got shot down on Oahu.
It happened again in 1991.
Then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann had those failures in mind in 2005, and pushed for a quick decision with this promise: "We will only use those monies for an efficient transit system that makes sense and will not waste taxpayers dollars. I make that pledge to you."
Rail was billed as a traffic solution and a way to spur the economy.
In a recent interview, Hannemann said Gov. Linda Lingle was on board, along with the City Council. Hawaii-born Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office and Hawaii's powerful senior Sen. Daniel Inouye had pledged his support.
"I guarantee you this, I'm going to do my damnedest to see that money comes in," said Inouye at this first appearance before the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation in 2011.
Hannemann said if they didn't move forward then, there would be no rail today.
"So I said 'Hey, the stars are aligned let's make this happen,' and the economy was also down at the time," he said.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who chaired the rail project's board before returning to Congress, believes Inouye pressured the Federal Transit Administration to approve an incomplete plan.
"I think that it probably had a lot to do with it," said Hanabusa.
She also concedes during its initial planning the project was rushed.
"Hindsight is always 20/20 so would say that 'Yes, that was a major part of the problem,' she said.
Meanwhile, Hannemann blames the rail project's cost overruns on mismanagement by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
"This is something that was handed to them from me on a silver platter ready to go, but we have the wrong people on the wrong seats on the bus," said Hannemann.
Including financing costs, the project — once estimated at $5.8 billion — is now expected to cost as much as $10 billion, including financing costs. That's if all 20 miles and 21 stations are built from Kapolei to Ala Moana.
But Caldwell says while change orders could have been handled better, lawsuits and the economy pushed up the price tag. The project also started in the Great Recession and now Hawaii is in the hottest construction market its ever seen.
"I think it's always easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, looking backwards, but in my mind, it was a project that had a lot of hurdles to overcome," said Caldwell.
University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore says the public was sold on rail as a traffic solution when much of its value was in spurring new development.
"Folks see this as somewhat a corrupt bargain or bait and switch. It doesn't mean the rail won't be valuable," said Moore.
Hannemann says they chose to go through under-developed areas so it could be built quicker and remake the city.
"As you come into the Waipahu, Pearl City, Aiea, Kalihi areas, those are older communities. This would help transform those neighborhoods into livable communities," said Hannemann.
Moore agrees and believes in the future, people will recognize the value of rail and like the once-controversial H-3 Freeway, it'll become an accepted part of Honolulu's landscape.
"I predict once it's built once it's financed, people will become dependent on the rail because of transit oriented development. It'll become very popular and that's what folks like Mayor Caldwell are banking on," he said.
This story is part of an ongoing series from Hawaii News Now on Oahu's rail project. On Wednesday, HNN will look at how lawmakers are proposing to fund a shortfall for the rail project.
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