Federal Judge Issues Split Decision On Honolulu Rail Environmental Suit

Nick Grube/Honolulu Civil Beat

A federal judge's long-awaited decision in the environmental lawsuit against Honolulu's rail project is a split decision giving both opponents and proponents of the $5.2 billion system talking points heading into Tuesday's election.

And within hours, both sides were doing plenty of talking.

"This will not stop the rail project," Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle told reporters at a hastily called press conference late Thursday. "The court had the chance to stop the rail project and it did not. And any suggestion that this is a blow and a fatal blow is nothing but mere politics done at the 11th hour."

But Ben Cayetano, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who is running for mayor on a platform of killing rail, told Civil Beat that the ruling was a clear victory for his side.

"These guys never quit," he said. "It's a victory for us if you ask me."

Cayetano said the city will have to redo some of its environmental reviews to the satisfaction of the court if it wants the project to move ahead.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima handed down the ruling Thursday afternoon. In it, he said the plaintiffs — Randy Roth, Cliff Slater, Walter Heen along with Cayetano, who's also running for mayor on an anti-rail platform — were right that the city's environmental impact statement was flawed because it failed to study some historic sites. It's another body blow and gives Cayetano ammunition to say the city did not address all necessary details as it rushed toward rail.

But while the ruling could contribute to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that ultimately does in the project, the omissions and the additional work the city needs to do to satisfy Tashima's ruling are not, in and of themselves, a definitive end to rail in Honolulu. The judge sided with the government defendants on the biggest question raised by the lawsuit: Were alternatives adequately considered?

The answer from Tashima was a resounding yes.

In a section dealing with two popular alternatives — bus rapid transit and at-grade light rail — Tashima wrote that "there is ample support in the record" to back up the decision by the the city and federal governments that elevated rail is superior.

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