Support for the city’s controversial $5.3 billion rail project has grown since voters first agreed to build a steel-on-steel transit system in November 2008.
Four years ago voters approved the ballot question on rail by 4.9 percent. In Tuesday’s general election that margin grew to 7.7 percent, as pro-rail mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell secured a convincing victory against former two-term Democratic governor and rail opponent Ben Cayetano.
”You have my total commitment to work hard every single day on all the issues,” Caldwell, 60, told an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds during his victory speech at Aloha Tower.
The former state representative, who also served a two-month stint as acting mayor, also promised to work on city infrastructure issues like roads and sewers and to “build rail better.”
During the final months of the campaign, Caldwell told voters he wanted to design the elevated rail system in a more historically or visually sensitive fashion, especially through downtown and Honolulu's waterfront.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who is critical of rail, but has supported the project in a majority of votes, viewed Caldwell’s promise as a pledge to mitigate impacts to Honolulu’s view planes.
"I hope that means that we won't have this elevated rail going past Aloha Tower and through the center of downtown," said Kobayashi.
In his concession speech, Cayetano, 72, vowed to keep tabs on Caldwell as the rail project progresses.
“I wish Kirk a lot of luck, I think he's going to need it,” said Cayetano. “I think we should hold him accountable for all the promises that he made.”
Although making changes to the rail line remains a possibility, any drastic alterations could impact environmental clearances, like the project’s final environmental impact statement.
“I think the issue is how much of a change we can make without redoing some of the EIS issues,” said Councilman Breene Harimoto, a staunch rail supporter. “I'm really happy that Kirk Caldwell will be here, and together we can work through some of the issues.”
Even though he lost the mayor’s race, Cayetano could still delay construction of the rail project further. Cayetano is among a group of plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit against the city to see whether the rail project followed federal environmental laws.
On Nov. 1, Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled the city failed to identify culturally sensitive properties along the rail line, and must study the feasibility of placing at least some of the route underground along Beretania Street. Tashima also said the city must examine how to mitigate impacts to Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Tashima has scheduled a hearing Dec. 12 to hear arguments on how the city plans to fulfill the requirements of his order.
Construction of the rail project has already been halted for the past two-and-a-half months after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled Aug. 24 that the city must conduct an archeological inventory survey along the entire 20-mile route, not in four separate phases.
The AIS hopes to identify native Hawaiian burials, especially those in Kakaako, before construction of the rail project begins through the city center.