HONOLULU (KHON2) — The largest public works project in state history almost derailed several times over everything from cost to politics — but those committed to its purpose got it back on track time and again.
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The rail has been floated for Oahu many times, dating back as far as the 1960s, only to fall apart at pivotal moments, like in 1992, when Councilmember Rene Mansho casted the deciding “No” vote — despite being a longtime rail advocate — on a tax hike to fund a train.
Jennifer Sabas, chief of staff for Sen. Daniel Inouye, said, “When that vote failed, right, the senator said, ‘No more. We’re not going to do this until I see a governor and a mayor that wants it.'”
In comes a pair that had another idea for mass transit.
“Gov. Ben, and Harris, and so it was a pivot, and we had more bus, right? There was a lot of good, not a bad thing,” said Sabas. “There was way more investment with bus.”
But when a train came up again in the early 2000s, even rail advocates were skeptical.
“I served in the state Senate. And that’s when we passed, in, I think it was 2005, 2006, the first GET for rail. And it was when Mufi Hannemann was mayor,” said Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Chairperson Colleen Hanabusa. “And, to say the least, many of us were kind of going, ‘Well, we’re not sure we’re gonna let you have all this money.'”
Another watching the tax dollars closely, then-Gov. Linda Lingle.
Honolulu’s current managing director, Mike Formby, was Lingle’s transportation director at the time.
“And it was DOT that commissioned the report that the governor requested, and that was to do an analysis of rail, really a fiscal analysis. And my recollection is that the governor at that time was never anti-rail,” said Formby. “But she wanted to make sure that it was a system that the State and the City could afford.”
“That was probably one of the first times that I thought, ‘Ah, this thing may be really in trouble,'” said Hanabusa. “But it managed to survive.”
The tax bill became law, and environmental studies started. In 2008, county voters gave steel-on-steel rail the green light.
With a money source and public support, the feds took notice that, this time, Honolulu rail meant business — and work on a $1.55 billion grant began.
But there’d be another referendum on rail, in the form of a heated 2012 mayoral race between Kirk Caldwell and Ben Cayetano.
“Senator was very active in it. He thought that that was the greatest challenge to rail. So, he was active in that campaign,” said Sabas. “After that election was over, he had his favorite meal in Zippy’s and then went back to D.C. and never returned; his health declined very quickly after that.”
Sabas continued, “And so, even when he was in very ill health, you know, we knew that things were not well. But at the time, there was going to be a big party, the signing of the full funding grant agreement. And it was set for Dec. 18; he passed on the 17th.”
“And we went through with it. And he was represented, basically, by we’ve did it in his appropriations office, and there was a chair for him,” said Hanabusa. “And the rest of us signed the ceremonial FFGA. So that’s really the inception.”
Costs continued to soar. Add to the strife years of changes on the board and at the helm of HART, the agency in charge of rail’s development.
“There were all kinds of issues that caused all of us on the outside to wonder about it,” said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi. “That said, having voted for it before, as I began to consider not just my candidacy as mayor, but then becoming mayor, the relevance and the importance of this was never in doubt.”
Skyline will launch a lot shorter and a lot pricier than first pitched nearly 20 years ago.
But the project, no stranger to close calls, even managed to keep all the federal money originally pledged to a longer, cheaper train.
“We brought the FTA back to the table. They liked what we did, they vetted our numbers, they approved the project,” said Blangiardi. “We’ve overcome, and so I feel really excited, the fact that we’re going to be able to deliver this now at the end of this month, at the beginning of a whole new era for this island.”