Construction is set to resume soon on the controversial Honolulu rail project and rail officials have been making the rounds of editorial boards and reporters to talk about the biggest public works project in Hawaii history.

Dan Grabauskas, the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, and Ivan Lui-Kwan, chairman of the HART board, dropped by Civil Beat‘s offices last week for a wide-ranging discussion of the $5.26 billion project.

It’s been a year since legal action and incomplete archeological surveys halted construction. But state officials recently signed off on the surveys and while several issues are still outstanding in a case pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rail appears back on track.

HART is counting on a couple of permit approvals by the Honolulu City Council this week to clear the way for the bulldozers to roll again next Monday, Sept. 16.

That means the rail project is squarely in front of us again. So we were curious about what HART might have to say to the considerable segment of the Oahu population that still hates the thing.

Interestingly, Grabauskas and Lui-Kwan think the public has come around on rail and that the election of Kirk Caldwell as mayor was a referendum of sorts that reenergized public support for a project that has torn Honolulu apart for years.

Voters approved the rail line in 2008, but it’s safe to say public support has eroded since then.

It’s true that on one level the 2012 Honolulu mayor’s race was all about rail. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano came out of retirement as the face of the anti-rail movement and vowed to kill the project if elected. Caldwell was its public champion and promised to “build rail better” if he was elected.

Caldwell won in November, 53 percent to Cayetano’s 45 percent. And last week Grabauskas and Lui-Kwan insisted — passionately — that the election laid to rest any political concerns.

“The people have spoken,” Lui-Kwan said, noting that voters also elected a number of new City Council members who favored the rail project.

“I think that’s clearly what the people have decided,” he said.

We’re not so sure.

HART’s interpretation of history ignores the effect of one of the nastiest political smear campaigns in Hawaii. The Pacific Resource Partnership’s multi-million-dollar takedown of Cayetano was not about rail. Instead, PRP dredged up decades old — and unfounded — accusations of illegal campaign contributions and suggested Cayetano encouraged a “pay-to-play” culture when he ran the state. The claims were debunked by reporters and political pundits, but the $3 million TV and radio campaign that saturated the airwaves did a number on Cayetano’s once-strong support.

Civil Beat polled voters six times last year about rail. More than 50 percent opposed it every single time, with opposition sometimes running as high as 55 percent. In January, two months after the election (and the last time we polled on rail), opposition was still at 50 percent with 40 percent in favor. Voters who don’t care or don’t know about rail have consistently been less than 10 percent.

What that tells us is that more people still don’t like the rail project than do like it. They articulate their reasons clearly, in public forums and in the dozens of comments we get on every story about rail.

So did they vote for Caldwell because they like the Honolulu rail project? Or did they just not like Cayetano after PRP’s scorched earth political campaign?

Either way, the time has now come to move forward with rail. How HART does that will remain of considerable interest to us, especially how billions of public dollars are being spent. Civil Beat has never taken a position on whether rail is a good idea or not, but we are all about the process.

Grabauskas and Lui-Kwan point out that you’re never going to get everyone in agreement on the project. And they think most people will eventually come to appreciate the rail line. Look at all the people who fought against H-3 for years and who now drive on it every day, they say.

That may be, but we hope they take the current significant opposition into account as much as possible as this major public undertaking rolls through our community.

Grabauskas assures us that much has been done already in that regard. He points to more than 1,000 community meetings that have resulted in design changes — smaller rail stations, for instance, and more seats — and an effort to use public art to make at least some elements of the system more aesthetically appealing.

“Our job is to have thick skin, work hard and listen hard,” Grabauskas says.

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