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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reviewing rail, jamming up the mayor

Back in October, Mayor Mufi Hanneman held his "State of Rail Transit" event, part speech, part pep rally. One of the spectacles was a video, featuring the mayor riding the train of the future. "This is not a virtual dream, folks, " he said. "This is our reality." He added that the city was "poised to break ground on the project"

Now, seven months later, that's starting to look like Hannemann's "Mission Accomplished" moment.

But even if Hannemann got ahead of himself, the closer we move to election time the more it seems like Hannemann's political opponents are doing everything they can to jam up the rail approval process so they can jam up his gubernatorial aspirations.

Gov. Linda Lingle is sticking to her plan to hire an expert to conduct an independent analysis of the rail system's finances, a redundant and time-consuming process that won't even start until the city completes its own financial plan and gives it to Lingle.

She also wants to hold a series of public hearings, as part of fulfilling her pledge to give the final environmental impact statement and financial plan a thorough going-over. (The city says she doesn't need an updated financial plan to sign off on the statement, yet another area of frustrating disagreement for those of us looking in from the outside).

Even someone who gives her credit for doing her due diligence before signing off on the project has got to wonder about this move. Contrary to complaints by some, there have been many opportunities for public comment already. And even before the federal government issues its final verdict on the EIS a "record of decision" the public will have another 30-day period to weigh in and the city will be required to answer every inquiry.

So there's really no purpose for Lingle's planned set of public hearings, is there?

Oh, wait. There's the political incentive and, given the dynamics of the election season, it's a powerful one. More hearings would provide a forum for critics of rail to hammer the project, as well as its champion, just as Hannemann is campaigning.

Maybe they're hoping the din will become so loud, the project so imperiled, that Hannemann will have to stay in the mayor's office instead of quitting this summer.

The $5.3 billion rail project is an enormous investment and critics, as well as public officials, are right to ask questions and make sure they're satisfied with the answers. City officials' handling of snags like the airspace issue along the airport route is certainly open to criticism.

But if people are simply looking to wound Hannemann by messing up the rail project, they're taking a huge risk. From the results of the 2008 election, and from every credible poll we've seen, the community still supports rail.