WASHINGTON — Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye has repeatedly promised that he can deliver hefty federal funding to help pay for Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project.

But he acknowledged to Civil Beat this week that it’s not a done deal.

“I’m a realist,” Inouye said, recalling the city’s 1992 attempt to build rail that failed when the City Council scrapped the project by a one-vote margin. That occurred, the senator said, despite his having secured federal funding.

“Maybe I should be a bit more dramatic and scream and yell,” Inouye said. “But that’s not me, you know?”

Now that Inouye helped craft a spending bill that makes Honolulu eligible for a portion of $510 million1 in federal funding next year, it’s up to local officials to advance the project to the point where they can dip into federal coffers.

“The money is in the bill,” Inouye said. “It wasn’t easy (to get).”

It won’t necessarily be easy for Honolulu officials to take advantage of those funds. The project has until Dec. 31, 2012 to enter into a Full Funding Grant Agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. Such an agreement is one of the ultimate milestones for rail planners, and would secure federal funds2 for the project.

It remains to be seen whether the project can get to that point in the next 13 months. Rail groundbreaking had long been slated for autumn 2009, and was repeatedly pushed back. In February 2011, the city finally held a groundbreaking ceremony, but it still isn’t allowed to start construction on the rail line itself.

Still, the project has cleared several major hurdles in the past year alone. For example:

Yet the project is not without controversy. Planners faced intense scrutiny over their decision to award a $1.4 billion contract to Italian rail manufacturer Ansaldo, and they are still fighting a high-profile legal challenge that could delay the project.

Asked what would happen to the project if Honolulu rail planners don’t take advantage of the $510 million appropriation next year, Inouye suggested that it boils down to how badly rail planners want the project to succeed — and the advantage of his significant influence in Washington.

“If they don’t do their part, I’m just assuming that’s their decision,” Inouye said. “It’s the end unless they revive it. But I’m not going to be around here when I’m 120.”

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