UPDATED 10/25 5:15 p.m.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series examining why Honolulu’s proposed rail line had to be shifted at Honolulu International Airport, who was responsible and how much it will cost taxpayers. Read the overview here.

Part 1: What Happened? | Part 2: Who Was Responsible? | Part 3: How Much Will It Cost?

In 2006, the city started down a path to have its rail project serve Honolulu International Airport (HNL).

The city chose the route past the airport preferred by the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT), which owns and operates the facility.

“After reviewing your proposed alignments in the airport area, we prefer the alignment with the transit guideway passing through HNL along Aolele Street with one station near the airport overseas parking garage and the other at the intersection of Aolele Street and Lagoon Drive,” HDOT Deputy Director Brian Sekiguchi wrote in a letter to rail chief Toru Hamayasu in August 2006.

The HDOT did warn the city about some potential pitfalls, but not the one that ultimately forced a route change.

In his letter, Sekiguchi told Hamayasu to “please be aware of height restrictions, especially at the area near Lagoon Drive which is the runway approach area for Runway 4R and 4L.”

Two and a half years later, in the agency’s official comments on the city’s Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIS), HDOT Director Brennon Morioka asked the city to “ensure that the Lagoon Drive Station meets the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) FAA Part 77 obstruction height limits for the end of Runway 22R.”

The FAA itself even reviewed the city’s proposed route.

In a February 2009 comment on the DEIS, the FAA wrote, “The height of the platform station along Aolele Street should not alter the flight path of aircraft landing or taking off from Honolulu International Airport.”

Just like the Department of Transportation, the FAA did not mention the issue that eventually forced the relocation.

Then in the summer of 2009 an independent expert hired by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to oversee the project alerted the city to the possibility that there might be a different problem with its route, according to both Hamayasu and the city’s engineering consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The culprit was the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ), defined by the FAA as “an area off the runway end to enhance the protection of people and property on the ground.”

When the city went to the state, it confirmed the expert was correct. The alignment along Aolele Street was too close to the runways. The city had two options: Move the train or extend the runways.

At first, it picked option No. 2.

The earliest written acknowledgement of the problem the city would provide is a November 2009 letter from the state HDOT to the FTA. By that time, the state and the city had already agreed on a course of action to mitigate the runway problem.

The city said it would explore a plan to extend the two runways in question by 300 and 750 feet, respectively. Hamayasu says that would have allowed the alignment and station to remain on Aolele Street. The city agreed to pay for the cost of extending the runways.

But after further inspection and engineering work, the city determined the runway-extension plan might be more difficult and costly than originally thought. It decided it would be more feasible to instead move the train one block mauka to Ualena Street. That’s now where the rail line is scheduled to go.

The public didn’t learn there was a problem until March 2010, when The Honolulu Advertiser broke the news.

It was then that the issues of height and Runway Protection Zones became confused, creating a public impression that the city had known about the problem and done nothing about it. A second Advertiser story said city officials were warned a year earlier that the alignment was too close to the airport. It made that claim based on the HDOT and FAA comments about height cited above.

A third story said the city would have to pay for the fix.

Leading rail opponents — former Gov. Ben Cayetano, former judge Walter Heen, law professor Randy Roth and businessman Cliff Slater — cited the first and third articles in their August 2011 letter to Mayor Peter Carlisle and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation‘s (HART) board of directors calling for an investigation of “apparent negligence” for putting the route too close to “protected airspace.”

Two days after receiving the letter, Hamayasu gave a presentation to the HART board in which he said that height, flight path and airspace had nothing to do with the change to the rail route. Those are three-dimensional concepts. Runway Protection Zones are two-dimensional. They’re a matter of distance on the ground, regardless of height.

To illustrate his case, Hamayasu went so far as to put together a three-dimensional plastic model.

“The implication that this was some kind of error, that we were notified earlier and that we neglected it, is completely incorrect,” Hamayasu told Civil Beat in an interview at his office. “The issues that state DOT had indicated earlier was not about the runway protection zone that caused the alignment shift. The earlier comment that we received from the DOT related to the airports in this area was related to height on the approach and the takeoff and not the runway protection zone, which is more of a plane space, not the height issue.”

The letter from HDOT to the FTA says the runway extensions are necessary “in order to meet FAA runway clearances” and cites FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13. That particular set of aviation rules includes the two-dimensional RPZ guidelines as well as a slew of other regulations for three-dimensional concepts like approach and glide slopes and height limits for structures that could obstruct air navigation.

To this day, there’s still some confusion over what exactly forced the city to move the rail alignment, and not just in the pages of the local newspaper or in letters from rail opponents. Simon Zweighaft, a managing partner at InfraConsult, the contractor in charge of overseeing design and engineering for the city, told Civil Beat that it was the glide path that was at issue.

“It’s the height that caused the incursion,” Zweighaft said. “Had we been lower, then we would have been OK.”

UPDATED But Zweighaft said that the episode was more than two years ago, that he was unclear on the details, and that his company’s role is more project management than design work.1 He deferred to Parsons Brinckerhoff, which backs up Hamayasu’s claim that it was the RPZ and not the height that was the impetus for the alignment shift.

“All of it plays in there, but the RPZ is the no-go zone that we had to get out of,” said Parsons Brinckerhoff’s James Dunn, director of design and construction for the project. “We could have done a lot of things in that alignment, but if I can’t be in that RPZ, I can’t do anything.”

The city said it was alerted to the problem verbally and that there’s no written record of the communications from the FTA’s independent expert, Jacobs Engineering. A message left for Jacobs was not returned.

The FTA confirmed the Project Management Oversight Contractor brought the issue to the FTA’s attention more than two years ago, and that the city addressed the issue by a realignment of the corridor, as reflected in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

A spokesman declined to answer specific questions about the episode, citing the opponents’ pending lawsuit. Civil Beat will seek any correspondence from the FTA to the city or Jacobs to the FTA under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Bottom line: Rail planners initially put the line too close to the airport and ultimately had to move it. They proceeded with the too-close plan for years until they were alerted to the problem by an expert hired by the Federal Transit Administration. The city first tried to address the problem by extending two airport runways before eventually deciding to move the alignment one block mauka, from Aolele Street to Ualena Street.

Read the next installment of this series here: Rail at the Airport, Part 2: Who Was Responsible?

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