This promises to be a wild year in Honolulu.

There’s a mayoral election on the docket, with three serious candidates including the incumbent. Five of the nine seats on the Honolulu City Council are up, and two veterans are term-limited out.

Meanwhile, 2012 is the make-or-break year for the largest infrastructure project in state history, the controversial Honolulu rail project. The clock is ticking on decisions about whether to extend the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill and where to put the next landfill. The aging water and sewer systems are in dire need of upgrades. And the city’s started to push its homeless off of the sidewalks.

With the Council gearing up for its first full meeting of the new year this week, let’s take a quick look at the status of the largest issues facing the city government in the next 12 months.

Rail

A year from now, Honolulu will either be well on its way toward full construction of the 20-mile, $5.2 billion rail project, or rail will be well on its way toward oblivion.

The coming 12 months will be make or break for the project in two separate ways.

First, a federal judge will hear arguments in the lawsuit challenging the project’s compliance with environmental laws. If planners are forced to go back to the beginning and review alternative rail technologies, the delay alone would be enough to kill the project even if steel-on-steel really is the best technology. Opponents say the lawsuit is the way they intend to stop the project.

Second, the Federal Transit Administration has a Dec. 31 deadline to decide whether Honolulu’s project is worthy of $1.55 billion in New Starts money, enough to cover about 30 percent of construction costs. Congress says projects that don’t meet the deadline for a Full Funding Grant Agreement will have to go to the back of the line. Mayor Peter Carlisle says rail will “plow forward” even without federal funding, but he’d have to raise taxes or find other funding mechanisms to make rail happen without the feds’ help.

On top of all this is the candidacy of a would-be mayor who says part of his reason for running is to stop the rail project in its tracks. If Ben Cayetano wins the job in the 2012 election, that would raise a host of other issues for the project.

Must-read stories: ‘Lot of Work To Do’ Before Feds Fund Honolulu Rail | Honolulu Rail Lawsuit Calendar Set | Could Honolulu’s Mayor Stop Rail Project?

Landfill

Just as with rail, 2012 is a critical year for the future of Honolulu’s solid waste.

The Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill in Leeward Oahu must stop accepting trash in July, though it will be allowed to keep accepting residue from the nearby waste-to-energy plant known as H-POWER.

The city has started making plans to site another landfill somewhere in Oahu. Nobody wants it in their backyard, particularly the Waianae Coast residents who feel like they’ve become the island’s ashtray. But Waimanalo Gulch remains on the list of potential sites being considered by the committee in charge of analyzing options.

Of course, constructing a new landfill will take years, even if the panel does pick a spot this year. So, in the meantime, the city is asking its own Planning Commission as well as the the state’s Land Use Commission to extend the life of the current landfill. The clock is ticking, and community members like leaders at Ko Olina are pushing back against the effort.

They’re concerned about the environmental implications of dumping trash at the site indefinitely, and point to the Clean Water Act-violating spill from the landfill into the ocean that left medical waste washing up on beaches last year.

Must-read stories: Fight Over Waimanalo Gulch Landfill Brewing | Committee Expands Search for New Landfill Site | New Details Emerge About Landfill Spill Response | Dump Déjà Vu

Water

The focus on the city’s aging water network was already heating up in the final months of 2011 as the Board of Water Supply approved a massive rate hike — 70 percent over five years — that will help pay for infrastructure repairs.

But while that decision is in the rearview mirror, a new debate looms on the horizon. City Council leaders, angry about the lack of accountability and the rate hikes, say they want to let voters decide whether the water board should be placed under the control of the mayor.

Ann Kobayashi said she’s already working with city lawyers on the language. Look for a resolution soon, and look for the water board to defend itself against the power grab with cries of “Keep water out of politics!”

Must-read stories: Honolulu Council May Try To Take Over Water Board | Even With Rate Increases, Honolulu Water Cheap | Will Hoopili Push Honolulu to Desalinate Ocean Water?

Sewage

It’s now been 18 months since the city approved a massive settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and environmentalists to clear up a lawsuit by committing to upgrades of its sewer system.

That $1 billion consent decree will be hanging over the city’s collective head for decades, but there are more immediate sewage concerns to worry about.

Since July, the city has been trucking untreated sewage sludge from Sand Island to Honouliuli as needed because the city’s main treatment facility has been running over capacity. That came after a budget battle between the Council and Carlisle, a battle that could be reprised this year.

Some Council members — Romy Cachola in particular — are unsatisfied with the city’s current sewage treatment technology and are continuing to push for different options rather than fund a second Synagro digester to create fertilizer pellets. The Council’s Public Works and Sustainability Committee last week (1/11) discussed some “no cost” pilot projects that could be used at Sand Island.

Must-read stories: Budget Battle Left Few Sewage Sludge Options | City Council Approves Massive Sewage Settlement

Homelessness

Like many major cities, Honolulu has a serious homeless problem.

It reared its head in the days leading up to the APEC summit in November, and the Council renewed its attempts to clear homeless off the streets in the final months of 2011. Now, enforcement is under way and “voluntary compliance” is the slogan over at Honolulu Hale.

Just last week, the Departments of Facility Maintenance, Parks and Recreation and the police went to three Honolulu parks to impound items that had been stored on sidewalks or in parks for longer than 24 hours. That forced some homeless people to pack their earthly belongings into trucks to take away or mulling the possibility of heading to an emergency shelter — the solution homeless advocates hope the tough love will yield.

On top of the homeless people impacted by the new ordinance, Occupy Honolulu protesters have drawn the ire of city officials. They, too, might be forced out of their encampment that’s existed at the corner of Beretania and Ward since November.

Must-read stories: Honolulu Homeless Frustrated as Belongings Taken | Occupy Honolulu Asked Mayor for Immunity From Sidewalk Belongings Ban

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