Heavy rail construction is set to begin any day now, and it’s taken rail planners and contractors months to pull together all the approvals they need to get started.

“There’s multiple levels of permits based on what the activity is,” Lorenzo Garrido, assistant project officer for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, said in a recent interview at rail headquarters on the 17th floor of Alii Place downtown.

Garrido is in charge of the team making sure all the permitting ducks are in a row, working with Kiewit Pacific to get all the paperwork in order. For one meeting with Civil Beat, he used a cart to wheel in what he said was just a sampling of all the documents HART or Kiewit have produced and submitted to government agencies as part of the process leading up to construction on the first phase of the rail line in West Oahu.

“We have very detailed lists, but generally what we focus first on is the design, the design plan that needs to be completed and approved before they can build. Then of course you’ve got the right-of-way and access issues, utilities and any and all of the permits needed,” Garrido said. “So we basically have those four areas. Everything would generally fall in one of those.”

Garrido and HART interim chief Toru Hamayasu said the first of 282 columns could go up at any of three locations — one at Hoopili, one near Waipahu High School, and one near the H-1 crossing. HART’s repeatedly said it expects to start digging holes and building columns before the end of March.

Rail planners have been working toward this moment for months and even years, but activities have ramped up in earnest in the weeks since the Federal Transit Administration issued a Letter of No Prejudice giving Honolulu the green light to spend $185 million of its own money.

HART quickly told Kiewit and its subcontractors to mobilize and secure the equipment and materials it needs to do the work. Now, the final details are being worked out.

Land Acquisition

Getting access to all the parcels along the route is a key step. Garrido said HART created agreements with multiple landowners to use their property, including government agencies like the Department of Education and University of Hawaii and large landowners.

For smaller private owners, the process included appraisal, negotiations and settlement. In the event that a deal can’t be struck, HART would resort to condemnation.

As of last month, HART had fully acquired five of the 14 parcels it needs control over to finish work on the West Oahu Farrington Highway (WOFH) section of the system. It also finished the partial acquisition of four of the 11 parcels on the list. That left 16 properties still in process, though Garrido and Hamayasu said they didn’t think condemnation would be necessary.

HART and Kiewit don’t need every parcel secured at the start of construction activities, so they still have time to finish up.

Permits and Variances

For most landowners and developers, zoning is a major hurdle in the entitlement process. But public facilities can be built in any land use district and in any zoning designation, Hamayasu said.

That leaves permits and variances.

The contractor is obligated to obtain all the permits before starting work. That includes approval for things like stormwater drainage, noise, trenching, stockpiling and grading. All of those are required only for construction — any environmental issues created by the existence and operation of the transit system itself would be included in the rail Environmental Impact Statement.

Here’s a list of the permits Garrido wheeled out to share with Civil Beat:

  • Stream Channel Alteration Permit from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)
  • Noise Permit from the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH)
  • Noise Variance from DOH
  • Contaminated or Hazardous Materials from DOH
  • Impact to Water Quality
  • Dewatering
  • Municipal Separate Stormwater Sewer Systems (MS4)
  • Waters of the United States from the Army Core of Engineers
  • Shoreline Survey
  • Coastal Zone Management
  • Special Management Area Use Permit
  • Stockpiling Permit from the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting

“It is a big undertaking,” Garrido said, the stacks laid out in front of him on a conference room table. “I am not directly involved in each of these intimately. We have a team of folks that specialize in the different types of permits, and they are assigned to coordinate these for the whole project.”

He said Kiewit has a mirroring team to secure permits, and the teams work together to ensure compliance.

“They may get one permit, and then they’re immediately focused on the next permit. And the volume of permit activity is significant, so they’re very busy,” Garrido said.

“Each permit is the product or a culmination of that group’s effort, so they do have a bit of a mini-celebration each time we get a permit, because that is definitely a relief point,” Hamayasu said. “We got the permit, now we can get going.”

Hamayasu said the permit applications include commitments to monitor construction impacts. He said HART has created a 24-hour hotline for people to call with complaints about potential violations.

“Here’s a sincere statement: It’s our goal to catch those things internally, not rely on citizen complaints or community issues. No, we’re going to be our own worst enemy in compliance,” Hamayasu said.

HART has managers and engineers whose responsibilities are to catch those things before anybody else catches them.

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