Council committee approves rail FFGA worth $1.55 billion

 UPDATED 7:37 AM HST Nov 30, 2012
1st Rail Column
HONOLULU -

The Honolulu City Council's Legislative Matters Committee moved a resolution forward Thursday that allows the mayor to sign a $1.55 billion full-funding grant agreement for the rail transit project.  The tally was 8-1, with outgoing Councilman Tom Berg the only no vote.

The next step is for the council to approve the resolution during its Dec. 5 meeting, which will give city officials the authority to enter into an FFGA contract with the Federal Transit Administration.

HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas expects the FFGA to be signed anywhere from Dec. 19 to the end of the year, although a location has not yet been decided.

"We're literally waiting," said Grabauskas. "We'll get word when and where that scheduled signing will actually take place."  

For supporters of the elevated rail line, approval of the FFGA is one of the last remaining obstacles standing in the way of the $5.3 billion project.

Although the Hawaii Supreme Court halted construction Aug. 24 until an archeological inventory survey is finished, only 10 test trenches remain to be dug. Once the AIS process is finished, the State Historic Preservation Division and the Oahu Island Burial Council will review a report to determine what should be done with native Hawaiian burials that have been discovered.

Just last month, a lawsuit that challenged the awarding of the rail line's $1.4 billion core systems contract to Ansaldo Honolulu JV was upheld by the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals.   

More recently, anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano lost to Kirk Caldwell by nearly eight points in the election for Honolulu mayor, which was widely considered a referendum on the project.

"It's been more than the craziest roller-coaster ride I could ever imagine," said Grabauskas. "Those are kind of the big things I got and I can't believe it was only maybe eight months ago that all that was still pending, but it's now been decided."

The only real challenge that remains before the rail project is a Dec. 12 hearing in federal court where a group of rail opponents, including Cayetano, will ask for an injunction.

Last month, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled the city must mitigate impacts of the rail project to Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako, provide further study of the possibility of placing part of the rail line underground along Beretania Street and identify more culturally sensitive properties.

However, transit officials remain confident the city will be able to address the judge's concerns without delaying the project any further.

"We're going to lay out for him how we're going to comply with his ruling, so we think it's going to be as straight forward as that," said Grabauskas.  

Only one person testified against approving the FFGA during Thursday's committee hearing. Waikiki resident Mark Torreano said the rail project could saddle Honolulu residents with high property taxes and diminishing services once full operation begin in March of 2019.

"As costs increase and delays occur, will you take the blame," Torreano asked rhetorically, while directing his question to pro-rail council members.

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