A hearing in U.S. District Court Thursday will determine if the city must build a tunnel along Beretania Street as part of the $5.3 billion rail project.
Federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima heard arguments for nearly two hours as project opponents detailed why a tunnel would be a better option than the current planned route, which takes the elevated rail line past Honolulu's waterfront near Aloha Tower Marketplace.
Nicholas Yost, an attorney representing a group of plaintiffs that includes Cliff Slater of HonoluluTraffic.com and former Gov. Ben Cayetano, argued the current route destroys view planes in Chinatown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
"The federal government's documentation, the National Register nomination, speaks of the importance of Chinatown and how this will impact it," Yost told reporters after the hearing.
However Robert Thornton, an attorney representing the city, said the Beretania Street Tunnel route would negatively impact seven parks, three historic properties and more than 40 properties that are eligible for listing on the NRHP, as detailed in the city's Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released last September. Tashima ordered the additional study in November, 2012.
In particular, the city pointed to three properties that must be protected: The OR&L building on the cusp of Chinatown, a sliver of land near McKinley High School before Pensacola Street, and a modest looking structure known as the King Florist Building at 1915 S. King St.
Thornton also argued the $1 billion cost of a Beretania Street tunnel would be "extraordinary" compared to the current route, which ends at the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Nevertheless, Tashima seemed to take particular interest in the project's stated goal, which is to eventually reach the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"It seems to me you would have to extend to UH to meet the purpose of the project," the judge said his during questioning Thornton.
Tashima also said comparing the two routes could be like comparing apples and oranges, since one ends at Ala Moana and the other at UH. Yost told the judge that if both routes stretched to the Manoa campus, the cost of the Beretania Street tunnel would be only 2 percent more.
"You've got to look at the total cost if both routes ended up in the same place," he said. "That's the total cost, that's the appropriate comparison and there the cost differential is very small."
Donna Leong, the city's corporation counsel, said plaintiffs in the case don't have a genuine interest in seeing the Beretania Street tunnel come to fruition, and the true goal is to kill the rail project.
"It will cost a billion dollars more to construct the Beretania Street tunnel, which is a substantial and extraordinary cost," she said. "I think they know that it would be impossible to construct the project if we were to do that alternative."
Tashima said he would issue a ruling as soon as he could, but the true fate of the city's rail line may rest with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which must decide if rail planners followed the National Environmental Policy Act by adequately studying alternatives to an elevated rail line.
The city wants Tashima to lift an injunction that prevents the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation from doing any work in the city center, the fourth and final phase of the controversial rail project. To date, HART has built 49 rail columns during construction of the first phase of the project near Kualakai Parkway.
To date, the city has spent $3.5 million to defend the rail line in state and federal courts. However, city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said legal costs reach more than $5 million when work done by deputies at the Department of Corporation Counsel is factored in.