Rail Ruling Another Black Eye For Hawaii's Historic Preservation Division

Ansaldo Honolulu

The state's embattled historic preservation division suffered another blow last week, with the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that the agency had violated its own rules in allowing the city to begin construction on Honolulu’s rail project without completing an archaeological inventory survey for the entire route first.

While a lot of the criticism by anti-rail proponents has centered on the city’s haste to push the project forward, it’s the State Historic Preservation Division — which is currently at risk of losing its federal certification and funding due to a long history of dysfunction — that signed off on the deal.

The $5.26 billion rail project ground to a halt this week as a result of the ruling, with tens of millions of dollars in contracts to developers, construction companies and urban designers on the line. It’s not yet clear whether the city will face financial penalties for delays in executing the contracts. It could be months before construction starts back up again.

Federal and state officials have raised concerns in the past that the turmoil within SHPD, from understaffing, high-turnover rates, major permit backlogs and leadership woes, is a threat to construction projects.

And if the National Park Service strips SHPD of its certification and funding, things could get a lot worse for rail.

Federal officials are set to make a final ruling on whether the agency has made sufficient improvements to keep its federal standing early next year.

Federally funded projects, which include the rail project, must be reviewed by SHPD to make sure that they meet national standards for the protection of historic and cultural resources.

If SHPD loses its certification it could cause further disruptions in the rail project, which hopes to get $1.55 billion in federal funding.

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