Environmental permit could be just the first redo for rail
The city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has begun the process of reissuing a critical environmental permit that's needed before construction of the city's $5.3 billion rail project can resume.
On Friday, a public hearing was held by the Department of Planning and Permitting regarding a special management area use permit (SMA) that would cover nearly 1.3 miles of the 20-mile-long elevated train, as well as a storm water outfall drain line and culvert leading from the project's maintenance and storage facility near Leeward Community College. About 25 people attended the meeting at Keehi Lagoon Memorial Park, but at least a half dozen of those in attendance were HART or city officials.
"The fact that no one testified in opposition today in any way, shape or form, I think bodes really well for the project," said HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas. The SMA permit helps ensure the rail line and other projects don't create environmental hazards as part of the Coastal Zone Management Program, which receives strict oversight from both federal and state agencies.
"Those resources would be recreational resources, beaches, environmental resources such as coastal eco-systems, and cultural resources," explained Art Challacombe, DPP's deputy director, who acted as the hearing officer at Friday's meeting.
The process of obtaining an SMA permit requires approval from the Honolulu City Council and is expected to stretch into September. It's the second time the city and HART are applying for the permit, after the Hawaii Supreme Court vacated a similar permit issued in 2011.
In a ruling last August, the high court ruled HART failed to complete an archeological inventory survey along the entire rail route from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center, thus invalidating the SMA. Once a second public hearing regarding the new SMA application wraps up at the Filipino Community Center on Monday, DPP must await approval of the rail project's AIS from the State Historic Preservation Division, before forwarding its permit recommendation to the City Council.
"We foresee recommending approval with conditions," Challacombe told KITV4, while refusing to say what those conditions might be.
It's expected the SMA will face little to no opposition among members of the City Council, which remains decidedly pro-rail. Of greater concern to rail planners is another possible redo that could delay construction of the project for years, or perhaps even jeopardize its completion.
On Aug. 15, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled a hearing to decide if HART and city officials adequately studied alternatives to rail in the project's environmental impact statement.
"The court has within its ability to render any kind of decision," said Grabauskas.
However, the head of HART remains confident the 9th Circuit's three-judge panel will rule in favor of keeping the rail project's EIS intact, since Judge A. Wallace Tashima threw out 20 of 23 counts filed by rail opponents last November. Tashima is a member of the appeals court in San Francisco.
"That should give us hope (and) a high degree of confidence that his colleagues on the remainder of the court will look at what his decision was, and back that up," said Grabauskas. "If he does, then we're in great shape."
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