When construction begins on Honolulu’s rail line is now up to the governor and federal government.

But it’s unlikely that the mayor who’s been the force behind the project will be in his office for the groundbreaking.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann has propelled the project forward for most of his term-and-a-half tenure, but is expected to announce this month that he will resign his city post to run for governor. Even if he remains in office until the July 20 candidate filing deadline, its unlikely the project will receive all the approvals it needs to begin construction by then.

The city this month submitted its final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed $5.3 billion rail project to the Federal Transit Administration. For construction to begin, the FTA and Gov. Linda Lingle need to sign off on the plans.

Uncertainty over the timing is a big change from last year. In October, Hannemann showed so much confidence in the project that he approved a $483 million construction contract for the first leg of the rail route, which would be funded entirely by a dedicated surcharge on the state’s general excise tax. At the time he announced the Kiewit Pacific contract, he predicted the project’s groundbreaking would come by the end of 2009.

Now the city will wait for a commitment of federal funding to begin building. The Environmental Impact Statement is required before the city can compete for funding through the FTA’s New Starts program. But the city also must submit a separate financial plan that will be evaluated to determine whether the city’s proposal qualifies for $1.55 billion in federal funding. The federal contribution could dictate whether the city can afford to build the 20-mile elevated line.

City Department of Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka said the financial plan is an evolving document and will be updated to reflect new developments, such as new contracts, before it is submitted to the FTA. Completion of the financial plan awaits approval of the final EIS, because that will solidify the route. Yoshioka pointed out that the rail budget has already changed, citing the Kiewit Pacific contract that came in $90 million below the estimate.

“We have several other RFPs (requests for proposals) stacked up and ready to be awarded. When those get awarded a similar thing may occur. You constantly have to adjust for these things,” he said.

Once the city brings the EIS up to federal muster, the public will be given 30 days to comment on the official document before the FTA and governor decide whether to formally accept the document. Approval from the governor or a designated representative is required because the environmental review process falls under the state Office of Environmental Quality Control’s jurisdiction.

In addition to approval of the EIS and financial plans, procedural challenges may also delay the project. The city has conducted an archeological inventory for only the first of four phases of construction — with plans to complete the remaining surveys before beginning each subsequent portion of the rail line. The Oahu Island Burial Council has appealed to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to compel the city to survey the entire route for Native Hawaiian burial remains and cultural resources before any construction is allowed to begin. It fears that once construction is underway it will be impossible to make any adjustments for historical or cultural sites.

Another obstacle could be a legal challenge. Rail opponents have said they plan to file a lawsuit if the FTA issues a record of decision, signaling the end of the environmental review process. Sensible Traffic Alternatives and Resources Inc, a vocal anti-rail group, has raised questions about the city’s ability to finance the project, as well as whether all alternatives were adequately addressed before the city moved forward in its planning.

The proposal is currently in its preliminary engineering stage, which includes hammering down the design and critical project elements. The city cleared one hurdle recently when it adjusted the route near the airport and received the blessings of the Federal Aviation Administration, which had raised concerns about the proximity of the line to the runway.

But Yoshioka said the state Historic Preservation Division still needs to determine whether the more than 60-year-old buildings that line the new route are historic, or, as he believes, just aging warehouses.

When the route and design are fixed, the city will have the detail it needs to justify whether it can afford not only to build the rail line, but operate and maintain it after the GET surcharge sunsets at the end of 2022. This information is a required part of the financial plan the federal government will review to determine whether to give a financial green light to the project.

At the state level, the governor says she’s going to scrutinize the city’s financial plan before she signs off on the project. The governor has already solicited bids from companies interested in analyzing the plan, but her spokesman Russell Pang pointed out that at this point there is nothing to review. “We have not yet received anything from the city,” he said.

As for how long it might take the governor to make a decision, Pang said, “The governor has said before that we will do a careful and thorough analysis of the EIS and the financial portion and we’re not going to be dictated by any artificial deadline, i.e., a registration deadline to file for a particular office.”

However, the state has been working with the city to move the project forward. State Department of Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said the state helped the city bring the route near the airport into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. “We’ve always been trying to be a partner in trying to make sure the rail route serves the best interest for all parties,” he said.

On his side, Morioka said the two levels of government are trying to coordinate on how the route will cross state properties, including highways and airport area. “We’re trying to complete the agreement which outlines the terms and conditions of having the route go through the state’s right-of-ways,” he said.

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