A federal judge’s long-awaited decision in the environmental lawsuit against Honolulu’s rail project is a split decision giving both opponents and proponents of the $5.2 billion system talking points heading into Tuesday’s election.

And within hours, both sides were doing plenty of talking.

“This will not stop the rail project,” Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle told reporters at a hastily called press conference late Thursday. “The court had the chance to stop the rail project and it did not. And any suggestion that this is a blow and a fatal blow is nothing but mere politics done at the 11th hour.”

But Ben Cayetano, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who is running for mayor on a platform of killing rail, told Civil Beat that the ruling was a clear victory for his side.

“These guys never quit,” he said. “It’s a victory for us if you ask me.”

Cayetano said the city will have to redo some of its environmental reviews to the satisfaction of the court if it wants the project to move ahead.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima handed down the ruling Thursday afternoon. In it, he said the plaintiffs — Randy Roth, Cliff Slater, Walter Heen along with Cayetano, who’s also running for mayor on an anti-rail platform — were right that the city’s environmental impact statement was flawed because it failed to study some historic sites. It’s another body blow and gives Cayetano ammunition to say the city did not address all necessary details as it rushed toward rail.

But while the ruling could contribute to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that ultimately does in the project, the omissions and the additional work the city needs to do to satisfy Tashima’s ruling are not, in and of themselves, a definitive end to rail in Honolulu. The judge sided with the government defendants on the biggest question raised by the lawsuit: Were alternatives adequately considered?

The answer from Tashima was a resounding yes.

In a section dealing with two popular alternatives — bus rapid transit and at-grade light rail — Tashima wrote that “there is ample support in the record” to back up the decision by the the city and federal governments that elevated rail is superior.

“Defendants consistently maintained … that the bus system would not alleviate congestion because of the problems with a mixed traffic system, and that at-grade rail would not satisfy the Project’s objectives because it would have to consist of smaller railcars that would stop cross-traffic as they passed and be forced to halt if traffic accidents occurred,” Tashima wrote.

Tashima also ruled that the city did not act capriciously or arbitrarily when it determined the managed lane alternative was not a feasible option.

“We are pleased to see that the judge ruled in favor of the City on 20 of the 23 remaining issues, and flatly rejected the vast majority of the plaintiff’s claims. The project remains on course,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Dan Grabauskas said in a statement blasted out to reporters shortly after the ruling was handed down.

“On all the major issues, we have successfully shown that the project properly conducted the required analyses and environmental studies. The ruling underscores the fact that the majority of alternatives were given proper consideration, including bus rapid transit (BRT), at-grade light rail and managed lanes. We will be carefully examining the ruling to determine what further course of action is needed.”

The plaintiffs’ three victories in the ruling were:

  • The city’s decision to delay a full study of traditional cultural properties was arbitrary and capricious, and it must complete its identification of those properties before continuing with the project “in any way” that might use unidentified cultural properties.
  • There is evidence in the record that the impact on Mother Waldron Park “will be quite serious,” yet the record of decision and EIS “glossed over these troubling observations.”
  • While the city was justified in its decision to forego a $650 million King Street tunnel, it did not explain its decision to also pass up a less expensive Beretania Street tunnel. The city must consider the prudence and feasibility of the Beretania tunnel alternative and supplement the EIS and Record of Decision.

The ruling comes after an August decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court brought the rail project to a temporary halt. In a separate lawsuit, the court said that the state shouldn’t have allowed construction on the rail project to begin before completing an archaeological inventory survey on the full route first. Project delays are expected to cost the city more than $100 million and postpone the project for months.

It’s not yet clear if this week’s ruling will further delay the project. The court has instructed both sides to file briefs on the merits and terms of halting or not halting the project — another court date is set for December 12.

“While an injunction may be appropriate in this case, issuance of an injunction does not automatically follow, nor do the terms of any such injunction,” wrote the court.

Cayetano said that he would push for a permanent injunction.

Grabauskas said that he expected the additional work on the EIS could be completed at the same time that the city is finishing work on the archaeological inventory survey, with construction starting back up early next year.

Read the full ruling here:

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