Honolulu’s rail project is on the ropes.

Public opinion polls show people have turned against the project. Even the anti-rail candidate in the Honolulu mayoral race, Ben Cayetano, is faring better than rail supporters, incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle and challenger Kirk Caldwell. Combined.

Enter Dan Grabauskas, a veteran of transit management and political skirmishes from Boston.

He’s confident, articulate and savvy, too. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is counting on him to derail the growing criticism and get public sentiment on a more favorable track.

How he’ll do at that assignment remains to be seen. But he seems off to a good start, at least when it comes to public relations. Grabauskas spent more than two hours at Civil Beat‘s office last week, chatting easily and intelligently about how he sees Honolulu, its problems, its future and how rail fits into that larger picture.

It was a good first date. We hope to see much more of him. Meanwhile, here’s our initial take on Honolulu’s newest political celebrity.

First, he’s very capable of articulating why he believes Honolulu needs rail. Transportation problems are a major buzzkill when it comes to economic growth and the prosperity and potential of large numbers of residents, particularly those who live in West Oahu but must commute to jobs in the downtown area. Infill development is one way to accommodate a growing urban area, but Honolulu is already spread out.

“Density without mobility is death,” he told us. “That’s what the H-1 is. People are dying out there.”

The rail project should be viewed as more than just this initial 20-mile leg from Kapolei to Ala Moana, he says. Grabauskas envisions spokes from the main line running to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Salt Lake, for starters. He talks about an old picture of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority that he keeps in his office. It shows the first 10th of a mile that was built a century ago. The oldest subway in the country, it’s now 880 miles of track. But it all started with that first little segment, Grabauskas notes.

Perhaps one of the more refreshing things about the new rail chief is that he’s not shy about pointing out the blemishes in Honolulu that many of us have learned to live with. He’s a newcomer for sure, but his message is there are places where this emperor has no clothes.

Just like the rest of us he’s been stuck in traffic plenty of times, too, in the two weeks he’s called Honolulu home. “If there’s one thing everybody agrees on it’s that traffic is craptacular.”

And to the rail critics who complain about Honolulu’s “virgin” view planes, Grabauskas asks: What view planes? Large swaths of Honolulu are already cut up. Think airport viaduct and the H-2 freeway. The elevated rail might actually allow a better view of the island’s spectacular beaches and breaking blue waves.

If you hide behind the argument that the rail doesn’t solve anything, you end up doing nothing, he says. Possibly, although to be fair other proposals for bus rapid transit and more commuter lanes have been put on the table.

Still, Grabauskas is intent on quickly and expertly getting HART’s vision in front of as many community groups, neighborhood boards and voters as possible. He’s been making the rounds of local news outlets, and wooing us with promises of better transparency and a willingness to answer our sometimes pesky and persistent questions.

So we’re eager to see where this new relationship goes.

He says Honolulu is having cold feet at the altar. But can he coax us into marriage? We’ll see.

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