Ben Cayetano made a point of not discussing the Honolulu rail project first when he announced his candidacy for mayor Thursday, Jan. 19.

But that doesn’t mean he avoided the subject altogether.

Both in his remarks and in his answers to the questions that followed, Cayetano criticized the project and its architects.

The main thrust of his criticisms was on the cost of the system — $5.3 billion to build, according to the city, but $7 billion or more, according to a study he cited. He also repeatedly talked about what building the 20-mile line would mean for the host culture and the island’s natural beauty.

“The elevated, massive, concrete structure will run along the waterfront, destroying forever the view planes of our beautiful city and changing its character for the worse,” he said Jan. 19. He later called the project “ugly.”

“It is irresponsible for us to burden them with huge debt and a city whose beauty is scarred by a wall of concrete snaking along its waterfront, running over ancient burial sites. Our future generations deserve better,” he said in a press release put out by his campaign and in prepared remarks distributed to reporters at the announcement.

“Ugly” and “scarred” are subjective words, not really fact-checkable.

And the disturbance of ancient burials, while considered inevitable by many in the Native Hawaiian community, isn’t exactly fact-checkable either. That will come as the city conducts archaeological studies and, eventually, builds the project.

So, what then can we fact check?

  1. How much of the 20-mile line will snake along the city’s waterfront?
  2. To answer that question, we’re going to have to define what he’s talking about when he talks about “the city.”
  3. Then we’re going to have to define what it means to be on the waterfront.

Of course, Cayetano uses evocative imagery in casting the project he opposes as “a wall of concrete.” While we may compare the train with existing elevated roads and tall buildings, that will not be the focus of the fact check.

It’s obvious from a quick glance at the overall route map that the 20-mile line doesn’t hug the coast all the way from Kapolei to Downtown Honolulu.1


But Cayetano was talking about “the city.” We asked him to define what he meant. After all, the city government that Cayetano seeks to lead is responsible for the entire island of Oahu and there are a number of definitions of “city.” His, it turns out, is the narrowest.2

“I wrongly assumed that everyone understood what I was talking about,” he said. “When we’re talking about Kalihi, for most local people, it’s considered outside of the city.”

Cayetano defined the city’s westernmost boundary as River Street. That would leave only five of the rail’s 21 stations inside “the city” — Chinatown, Downtown, Civic Center, Kakaako and Ala Moana Center.

By our calculations, the Chinatown station above Nimitz Highway near the corner of Kekaulike Street is the closest to the water of all stations. It’s separated from Honolulu Harbor by only four lanes of traffic.

An aerial view of the Chinatown rail station.

The Downtown station is almost as close, at the corner of Nimitz and Bishop Street, with only one building and Aloha Tower Drive standing between it and the harbor. The Civic Center station is about three-tenths of a mile from the water, Kakaako station about two-tenths of a mile, and the Ala Moana station a little less than four-tenths of a mile.

So does that qualify as being “along the waterfront?”

The most common definition of waterfront property is that it abuts the body of water in question. That means the property is on the makai side of the road, and that there are no other parcels between it and the water.

The city defines the “shoreline area” generally as the land within 40 feet of the highest wash of the waves.

Taken literally, Cayetano’s claim about rail running “along the waterfront” is plainly false. The half-mile section connecting the Chinatown and Downtown stops is really the only part that even comes close to qualifying.

But if we’re to give Cayetano the benefit of the doubt and interpret his words in the context of his concerns about rail’s aesthetics, then “along the waterfront” can be taken as a metaphor for “near the waterfront” because the project would impact mauka-to-makai views whether there’s a parcel between it and the ocean or not.

Cayetano’s campaign website on Wednesday posted some recycled photos that it says characterize the “blight of rail.”

“Maybe I should have said view plane or something,” Cayetano told Civil Beat. “That structure is basically running alongside the waterfront. If you take a look from the mauka side of Bishop Street and you look down the street toward the ocean, that thing will be blocking the view.”

Here’s the Google Street View down Bishop Street from the top, near Beretania Street. Above that intersection, the road is known as the Pali Highway:

View Larger Map

From here, you can’t see the ocean at all. It’s hard to imagine that the rail line would dramatically change the view. Instead, here’s the view from the corner of Bishop and King Street toward the water:

View Larger Map

From this spot, it’s easier to envision how a rail line one block from the water would change the landscape. And here’s the view from even closer, at the intersection of Bishop and Queen:

View Larger Map

“I think, as you point out, some things are subjective,” Cayetano said. “I’m talking about it from my standpoint as someone who has lived here. The people who have seen those renderings are shocked because they never imagined that it would be like that. That’s the point I was trying to make when I was talking about this structure snaking down the waterfront and changing the character of the city.”

Bottom Line: It’s true that a small section of the route runs very close to the waterfront and a larger segment is in the general vicinity of the ocean. But the line is 20 miles long and in some spots is not particularly close to any water at all. Cayetano uses metaphor and imagery to create the impression that the rail system will be built on the coast, and that’s not entirely accurate.

Hence the grade of Half True.

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