His office is no City Hall. You’ll find no grand steps leading to a conference room lined with easels conveying a vision of what Honolulu might look like once new rail stations are built.

There are no assistants or spokesmen to stand in his stead.

When we drove up to the thriving business he helped found, Maui Divers Jewelry, there he stood, in khaki pants and an aloha shirt, in the shade of the parking garage. A friendly Englishman with a white beard and a gentle accent. But don’t be deceived. This 77-year-old has been the nemesis of any mayor who’s tried to build a rail project in Honolulu over the past 25 years.

A while back you might recall I went into the den of the believers, seven city officials who shared a persuasive vision of a city with a train running through it. The headline on my article was “This is not Mufi’s train.” These officials were behind it 100 percent, and they believed the majority of the public was with them, too. And in their case ,they could point to an election in 2008 and more recent polls to support their case.

Well, I promised then that I’d visit with the critics. Cliff Slater might as well be their mayor, the mayor of no-rail Honolulu. His slogan might well be, “It shouldn’t be anybody’s train.” And guess what, everywhere he looks he sees allies, too. He doesn’t think anybody is for the train, except maybe folks who’ve been poorly informed by the local media, which “haven’t covered the story enough,” or contractors who are going to make money building it.

Slater is the chair of Honolulutraffic.com, arguably the leading opponent of the city’s proposed $5.5 billion rail project. And this weekday morning before we sit down to chat, he’s piling us into his Mercedes sedan to drive the train’s route through the downtown core. He wants us to see it through his eyes, so he’s taking us to Chinatown. From there, we’ll drive the rail route back to Ala Moana Center. And as we drive, he talks. And laughs. One thing you need to be prepared for with Slater is that while he may be determined — he seems to live and breathe the issue — he’s got a sense of humor, and a way with words.

Cliff Slater on why rail is a bad idea for Honolulu

Here are just a few of the memorable lines from the morning, and then I’ll get back to the vision of the rail line he painted on our drive. While he may sound like a firebrand, his tone is calm throughout.

  • “Why pay more when we can get the same service for less?”
  • “It doesn’t take too much of a businessman to say this is a waste of money.”
  • “If it wasn’t for (Sen.) Dan Inouye and the muscle he represents, we wouldn’t be talking about this because rail is so ridiculous.”
  • “We don’t have the money for this. Do you think this is worth going into debt for $1.5 billion to the Communist Chinese government?”
  • “These folks on the Ewa plane need some traffic relief. Nothing that’s being proposed is going to give them that.”
  • “My sense of it is that people are becoming a lot more aware of the disconnect between the amount of money that is going to go to this thing and the supposed benefits we’re going to get from it.”
  • “No metropolitan area in the United States, whether or not they’ve built rail, has in the last 20 year period improved the percentage of people traveling by public transportation.”
  • “This whole thing about energy savings (from rail) is bizarre. The data just doesn’t show it.”
  • “We need to address the traffic congestion problem, not the public transportation problem. We need to use tools to address congestion. Rail is not one of them.”

Cliff Slater on Sen. Daniel Inouye and the rail project

Slater seems to relish the ironies he sees in this fight. He seems to get the greatest pleasure from the fact that the city has had to admit that traffic congestion will worsen even with the rail project. He keeps coming back to that point. Not only doesn’t the project make financial sense, in his view, but it won’t do what people most want, and that’s reduce congestion.

And then there’s how ugly, disruptive and massive the project is going to be.

Slater landed on this island in 1961, when a sailing boat he was taking from San Francisco to New Zealand lost its mast. He enjoys the views of the harbor. So when we arrive in Chinatown, and we begin our journey along the rail line, he keeps asking us to imagine. Imagine concrete pillars 6 to 8 feet in diameter, supporting a concrete rail bed 30 feet wide. Imagine it running above the street. Imagine what it will do to the feel of the city.

He takes us down Halekauwila street with its beautiful trees. The street, he says, is 36 feet wide. Now look up and imagine a structure that almost entirely covers the street. He chuckles remembering an earlier rail fight, when an engineer revealed that a similar proposed elevated line down Kuhio in Waikiki would need fluorescent lights under it because it would be so dark. That dream died. He talks of federal judges opposed. And architects. And environmentalists. He remembers defeating rail in 1992, when a tax increase died on a 5-4 City Council vote. Eighteen years ago. It’s been a long time.

Back at the jewelry business, which with its more than 500 employees is a sure sign that this is a man who knows something about making money and creating a viable financial plan, we sit in a small, plain conference room with four squeaky chairs. Behind Slater, a framed black and white old-looking photography shows a hula dancer.

It’s here that we talk of alternatives. If Slater is against rail, what is it that he’s for? He had talked of HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), but it hadn’t been clear that his vision is that those lanes too will have to be elevated. He talks of using King and Beretania for special lanes at grade for buses. His is a less expensive vision. One, he says, that’s more sensible. He directs us to engineer and mayoral candidate Panos Prevedouros and studies he’s done with his students. The city just isn’t interested and won’t listen, he says.

Cliff Slater on his vision for better transportation on Oahu

Slater filed 65 pages of comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the rail project. He sees why it doesn’t make sense. But don’t come here expecting to walk away with a clear vision of what the city might look like without it.

In Slater’s world, you do what makes financial sense and what works to solve the problem you’re trying to address. He’s not buying the arguments for “transit-oriented development” that will come with rail and potentially transform Honolulu into a more dense and lively city.

“Most people don’t want to live in vibrant neighborhoods,” he says of the transit-oriented development concept. They want, he says, quiet neighborhoods, with soccer fields.

It all seems clear in Slater’s world. The city is about to make a big mistake that should be obvious to anyone, a mistake we can’t afford.

The city still has many hurdles to cross. And he’ll be there to make every one of them as difficult as possible. The question in the end will be whether we’ll thank him for standing firm or blame him for preventing a giant new addition that could transform the look and feel of a significant part of Honolulu.

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