Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway sent a letter to the Federal Transit Administration and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation earlier this month, urging both agencies to conduct further study of the Beretania Street Tunnel Alternative for the Honolulu Rail Transit Project.
Mollway told KITV4 the letter was in response to a public comment period regarding the project's Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The comment period is scheduled to close July 22.
"The court is only acting in its capacity as an occupant along the proposed route," Mollway said Thursday by phone.
HART's DSEIS states the Beretania Street Tunnel Alternative is feasible, but is not prudent because of its extraordinary costs, estimated at $960 million.
However, Mollway notes in her July 8 letter that the draft report fails to consider the capital cost of a proposed future extension from the Ala Moana Shopping Center to UH Manoa. She says there could be major cost savings in implementing the Beretania Street Tunnel Alternative now, rather than pursuing a possible two-stage development.
Mollway added that the purpose of the $5.3 billion rail project is to provide high-capacity rapid transit in the highly congested east-west transportation corridor between Kapolei and UH Manoa, as specified in the Oahu Regional Transportation Plan 2030. But, she points out, the proposed rail route does not go anywhere near the UH Manoa campus.
"The DSEIS then unrealistically posits that a UH student, after riding the rail to Ala Moana, can transfer to a bus to get to the UH campus and, even including the time getting to the bus boarding area and waiting for the bus, arrive within 9 minutes," wrote Mollway.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that hopes to delay or even halt the controversial rail project jumped on Mollway's letter as proof the city is engaged in a boondoggle.
"I think what this letter is really, is an elegant judicial smackdown for both HART and the City Council," said state Sen. Sam Slom, one of eight individuals and organizations involved in the lawsuit.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, also a plaintiff, said rail planners have been scaling back the project ever since it was proposed.
"The project originally as presented to the Legislature included East Kapolei," said Cayetano. "They cut six miles of that, and UH Manoa, they cut that out."
Mollway's letter is not binding, but represents the voice of the U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
HART Deputy Executive Director Brennon Morioka issued a statement about the letter, saying:
"All interested persons are encouraged to provide their comments and feedback on the Honolulu Rail Transit Project’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Section 4(f) Evaluation. All comments received through July 22 as part of the process will be given full consideration, including Judge Mollway’s.”
Last November, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled the rail project was required to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement to study the Beretania Street Tunnel option, as well as examining the potential impacts to Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako
Tashima presided over the case because U.S. District Court judges in Honolulu, including Mollway, recused themselves from the case due to conflicts of interest. In an earlier letter dated May 30, 2012, Mollway expressed concern the rail line would cause safety issues for the U.S. District Court Building.
Tashima's ruling was appealed by the plaintiffs to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has scheduled an Aug. 15 hearing a three-judge panel in San Francisco.
University of Hawaii law professor and lawsuit plaintiff Randall Roth said the goal of rail opponents is not to get the route changed, but to kill the project entirely. Plaintiffs hope the federal appeals court will order the FTA and HART to conduct a new EIS to examine all possible alternatives to rail.
"The law requires that they rigorously and objectively study all of the reasonable alternatives," said Roth. "I think they'll be ordered to start over and end up with a project that really does alleviate the traffic congestion problem."
The Beretania tunnel would go underground at Ka'aahi Street near Dilingham Boulevard and resurface on Beretania Street by the main police station.
From there it would go back onto an elevated structure across Alapai Street, before transitioning onto King Street until it reaches University Avenue. The alternate route would then cross the H-1 Freeway and end up at the UH Manoa lower campus.