The State Historic Preservation Division has approved archaeological survey reports for the Honolulu rail transit project, clearing the way for permit applications and moving the project one step closer to resuming construction in East Kapolei as early as September.
HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas said completion of the AIS review allows the transit agency to work with the City Council for permit applications, a necessary step following the yearlong delay. First comes a review by the city's Department of Planning and Permitting of the more than 8,000-page document.
"They'll be seeking some additional permits that we need, and then as a result of that, we'll be able to hopefully go back to construction, looks like in the middle of September," Grabauskas told reporters.
The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled last year that the archaeological survey work should have been completed for the entire 20-mile rail route before construction in East Kapolei began.
HART, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, had completed the studies for the first half of the alignment from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, and was in the process of completing studies for the remainder of the route at the time of the court's decision.
Still, the holdup in construction has cost taxpayers upwards of $35 million in delay claims. Grabauskas said yet to be determined are escalation costs pinned the price of raw materials, which could number in the tens of millions of dollars.
"That's a process that's going to take a little bit of time for us to work out, with primarily Kiewit and the subcontractors," Grabauskas explained. On July 26, HART sent a letter to Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. that the contractor should expect construction of the first 10 miles of the rail project to resume Sept. 16.
HART temporarily halted construction of the project to comply with the high court's decision and worked on completing the remaining archaeological studies, which resulted in the digging of 423 trenches to test for possible native Hawaiian burials.
That field work was completed in January.
"We wanted to make sure that we were very respectful of the process to respect the native Hawaiian burials and our cultural heritage, and in so doing, we created a very good body of work," said Grabauskas.
According to administrative rules that govern how SHPD must treat native Hawaiian remains, the agency has up to 90 days to determine a burial treatment plan for any burials found during construction of the elevated rail line. According to the AIS, it's likely more native Hawaiian remains will be found once construction of the rail project reaches the city center in 2017.
However, HART, the Oahu Island Burial Council and cultural descendants have already reached an understanding that barring any extreme finds, native Hawaiian burials discovered during construction will be preserved in place.
"The Oahu Island Burial Council remains in close communication with not only Dan Grabauskas, but with the rest of his team that's responsible for ensuring proper care, respect and malama for iwi kupuna," said Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, chairperson of the OIBC. "We are working together to make sure that what needs to be done will be done."
Nevertheless, Wong-Kalu said if any burial site discovered in the city center deserves a more thorough examination, she would urge SHPD to take the full 90 days that's allotted for review.
"If an extreme case scenario it were to be the three months, then that's the amount of time we would take," said Wong-Kalu.
Late Friday, rail opponent Cliff Slater issued a statement accusing HART of trying to keep Oahu residents "napping" by releasing news of the AIS approval on the Friday before Labor Day. Although SHPD issued a series of letters to HART approving individual phases of the AIS, Grabauskas said final approval did not come until late Thursday.
Slater is among a group of rail opponents attempting to stop construction of the rail project in federal court, maintaining the city failed to adequately study alternatives to a heavy-rail system. Grabauskas said HART would not wait for the lawsuit to be resolved before resuming construction.
"Cause otherwise were not going to be on time, and that means we're not going to be on budget," said the transit authority's executive director.
The first 10 miles of the rail system from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium is expected to open in 2017, with the full 20-mile line to the Ala Moana Shopping Center opening in 2019.
The entire project is expected to cost $5.3 billion.