Editor’s Note: Four well-known opponents of rail published an opinion piece in the Aug. 21 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Civil Beat has identified seven claims worthy of a closer look. This is one of those Fact Checks.

One of the claimed benefits of Honolulu’s proposed rail project is that it will takes cars off the road, reducing not only traffic but emissions and oil consumption.

But critics say the environmental benefits are exaggerated and haven’t convinced those who would be expected to support “green” efforts.

In their Aug. 21 op-ed, four well-known opponents made the following statement:

The city claims that rail would save energy. However, U.S. Department of Energy data shows that, except in heavily populated urban centers, rail requires more energy per rider than do automobiles. The smallest urban center with heavy rail is four times larger than Honolulu. No wonder virtually every environmental group in Hawaii opposes heavy rail despite the city’s false claims that it would be a “green” project.

Asked to identify those environmental groups, one of the piece’s authors, Cliff Slater, provided the following statement to Civil Beat:

Please check with Outdoor Circle. They circulated a consensus statement among environmental groups, when they all signed Gov. Cayetano presented it at a press conference, you may remember. See also their comments on the Draft EIS.

So Civil Beat did, and this is what The Outdoor Circle told us.

“I’m a little confused about that frankly,” said Bob Loy, the organization’s director of environmental programs. “There was a statement that we signed on to. We helped write it after we were approached by Cliff Slater’s group and others opposed to the project.”

He added that “it wasn’t ours to send around for signatures.”

Loy also provided Civil Beat with the official statement that was presented at Gov. Cayetano’s press conference:

“We support the construction of a sensitive transit system through downtown Honolulu. We believe the City’s proposed elevated heavy rail project will destroy mauka-makai view planes, create a physical barrier between the city and our famed waterfront and disturb Native Hawaiian burial grounds along its right-of-way. Also, we believe that the proposed system will be an intrusion on the landscape, will forever alter the character of the communities through which it is built and will negatively impact the lives of people who live and work in Honolulu’s urban core. We consequently are united in our opposition to the construction of an elevated heavy-rail system through historic downtown Honolulu and strongly urge consideration of a less destructive and more neighborhood friendly system.”

Here’s an article about that press conference. It says that the groups represented there included “individual AIA architects, Advocates For Consumer Rights, Friends of Makakilo, Hawaii’s 1000 Friends, Hoa’aina o Hawai’i’imiloa from Leeward Community College, Donors of Irwin Park (represented by Michelle Matson), The League of Women Voters-Honolulu, Life of the Land, Oahu Farmland Alliance, The Outdoor Circle, Residents Along The Rail, and other individual supporters.”

Loy explained that The Outdoor Circle has not taken a definite position against the overall rail project. What the organization is firmly opposed to is the proposed elevated system that runs through downtown Honolulu. It believes the transit system should be at street level.

“We think the project is going to be extremely damaging to the visual environment of our island,” said Loy.

He said the organization’s position was “to work as hard as we can” to mitigate environmental impacts, such as a thousand trees being “moved, relocated or destroyed as a result of the project.”

Civil Beat checked with 10 other environmental groups in the state and found that the statement that “virtually every environmental group in Hawaii opposes heavy rail” is false.

The final tally?

Opposed – 2

In favor – 1

No position – 8 (including The Outdoor Circle)


Two environmental groups are clearly opposed to the project.

Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, an organization that has been heavily involved in environmental and land issues since 1980, is against it.

“It will be environmentally destructive, ruin mauka to makai view planes, destroy cultural districts, sites and iwi and is not affordable for our island population,” Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, told Civil Beat by email.

Life of the Land also said it opposed the project “as it is currently configured.” Executive director Henry Curtis told Civil Beat that the organization is planning on joining the lawsuit against the project. Curtis has been particularly outspoken on energy issues.

In Favor

The Sierra Club Oahu is the only organization surveyed that has taken a position in favor of rail on the basis that it provides Oahu with what it “needs most” – an alternative to the automobile.

The organization has 3,000 members islandwide, and has halted major development projects in Hawaii, including Koa Ridge. It is intervening to try to prevent the Hoopili development.

In a position statement, the organization writes, “Oahu residents have become overly dependent on private automobiles, and this dependence has devastating effects: reliance on fossil fuels, pollution and global warming, traffic congestion and the resulting loss of productivity, consumption of more land for roadways and parking, and negative impacts on public health and community life.”

No Position

Three groups said they had taken no definitive position on the rail project, while four others said that it was outside the scope of their mission and The Outdoor Circle, while its statement is highly critical of the project as proposed, says it hasn’t taken a stand.

Defend Oahu Coalition, a group of community residents, environmentalists and religious leaders, said that as of yet, there were too many unknowns about the project. The group is dedicated to protecting against “the dangerous effects of large scale development.” They’ve been particularly involved in the proposed expansion of Turtle Bay.

“Although we support the concept of rail as a mode of mass transit for Oahu residents, there are too many unanswered questions for our organization to take a definitive stance on the rail system as it is currently proposed,” said Kent Fonoimoana, co-chair of Defend Oahu Coalition.

Other organizations on the fence include Historic Hawaii Foundation and Kanu Hawaii.

Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of Historic Hawaii Foundation, which for the past three decades has been working to protect the state’s historic sites, said the organization had no definitive stance on rail. However, Faulkner said the organization was watching the project to mitigate any impacts it may have on historic properties.

Kanu Hawaii has focused on laying out the costs and benefits of rail.

“How we discuss/decide this issue is as, if not more important, than the final outcome,” James Koshiba, executive director of Kanu, told Civil Beat by email. Kanu Hawaii is a three-year old organization focused on Hawaii’s environment and economic security.

Four groups said the rail project just wasn’t on their radar: The Nature Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Makai Society, Conservation Council of Hawaii, and Earthjustice. (More specifically, Earthjustice said that as a law firm, it doesn’t take positions on issues with which it is not involved.)

“We can’t say we’re opposed to it because it’s totally outside of our mission,” said Stuart Coleman, the Hawaii coordinator of Surfrider Foundation.

The other groups reiterated the sentiment.

Bottom line: It’s not true that “virtually every environmental group in Hawaii opposes heavy rail.”

Read opponents’ response to this Fact Check: Click here.

Here are the related Fact Checks:

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