With just days left in office, Mayor Peter Carlisle joked that he would rather talk about his portrait now hanging in Honolulu Hale alongside the other paintings of former mayors.

Instead, he called a brief press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss a favorable federal court decision on the city’s 20-mile rail project from Kapolei to Ala Moana. The ruling effectively secures the federal funding Honolulu has received to build the $5.26 billion project, but there’s still months of work to be done before construction can resume.

“This is time for the other side to realize they’ve lost in the polls, they’ve lost in public opinion, they’ve lost in the courtrooms and all they’re doing right now is wasting everybody’s time and money,” Carlisle said. “It’s time to live with the circumstances as they are and get out of the way of progress as quickly as possible.”

The “other side” is former Gov. Ben Cayetano, whom Kirk Caldwell defeated in November in his bid for mayor, along with transportation expert Cliff Slater, Randy Roth and Walter Heen.

The city has been fighting this group and others in and out of court for more than a year over whether the rail project has met federal environmental, transportation and historic preservation laws.

The latest ruling came Thursday morning when Judge A. Wallace Tashima decided Honolulu can continue work on the first three phases but has to hold off on construction on the fourth and final phase until certain conditions are met. The city plans to start building the fourth phase — the urban Honolulu portion from Middle Street in Kalihi to Ala Moana Center — in June 2014.

The ruling also bars the city from any real estate acquisition related to the fourth phase, which the mayor’s legal counsel is interpreting to include property negotiations. Carlisle wouldn’t speculate on whether this could cause further delays.

Roth, a University of Hawaii law professor, considered the ruling a mixed bag.

“We won on some things and they won on some things,” he said, noting the plaintiffs think it’s significant they got the partial injunction. “It’s one more step in a long journey. We continue to believe our legal position is correct and continue to be hopeful we will prevail in court.”

The ruling allows the city to do engineering work and other pre-construction activities for the fourth phase, but it can’t start building that part of the route until issues identified in earlier court decisions are addressed.

Tashima ruled in November that the city needs to more thoroughly evaluate the impacts to Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako, explain why a tunnel under Beretania Street wasn’t considered as an alternative route and account for traditional cultural properties along the rail line.

Construction on the project stopped in August after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the city and state didn’t follow the law by planning to survey Native Hawaiian burial sites in phases instead of all in advance.

The city has lost tens of millions of dollars in delays as it scrambles to finish the survey.

Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa said all scheduled archaeological trench work was completed earlier this month. He said the city is now working with the state Historic Preservation Division on whether any additional trenches need to be dug.

All findings from the work will be included in an extensive survey report to be submitted early next year for SHPD’s review and approval, Ishikawa said. Assuming that goes well, he said rail construction work in West Oahu is scheduled to resume next fall.

“This is the news we had hoped for,” HART CEO Dan Grabauskas said in a statement. “Oahu residents can look forward to seeing their rail system fully operational in 2019 as planned.”

Pacific Resource Partnership, a pro-rail group who intervened in the case, also applauded the decision. The advocacy arm of the carpenters union, PRP spent $3.6 million to back Caldwell for mayor last election.

“As the most significant public works project in the history of our state, it is imperative that the rail project is built the right way,” PRP Executive Director John White said in a statement.

City Will Keep Federal Money

Judge Tashima also decided not to vacate the Federal Transit Administration’s Record of Decision, essentially a federal stamp of approval to proceed with the project. This part of the ruling means Honolulu will keep all of the $1.55 billion the city has received from the feds.

Grabauskas has said that it could have taken several years for the city to go back and repeat many of the steps — including those required by the National Environmental Policy Act — that it already went through to get the Record of Decision in the first place. This delay could have put the federal funding in jeopardy.

The Cayetano group had wanted the court to issue a broader order, arguing that the city should have done it right the first time around. The group wanted the project stopped entirely until the city came into full compliance.

“We would’ve preferred the city had to go back and redo the Record of Decision but the judge didn’t give us that one,” Roth said.

The plaintiffs plan to get together soon to decide whether to fight the ruling, he said.

“There’s a pretty good chance this will end up before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Roth said.

Read Tashima’s latest ruling here:

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