By a 5-4 vote, the Honolulu City Council appointed documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist and environmentalist Anthony Aalto to join the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board on Wednesday.

Aalto now officially replaces construction-cost professional Joe Uno to help oversee a struggling elevated rail transit project that’s endured astronomical cost increases and more than a decade’s worth of delays since construction started. 

Council Chairman Tommy Waters, along with members Radiant Cordero, Brandon Elefante, Esther Kia’aina and Calvin Say voted for Aalto’s appointment. 

Council members Carol Fukunaga, Heidi Tsuneyoshi, Augie Tulba and Andria Tupola dissented and supported a separate floor amendment that would have appointed Uno instead. That measure failed along the same voting lines.

Sierra Club Anthony Aalto speaks during Mayor Caldwell presser, announcing the endorsement of Caldwell by the Hawaii Sierra Club at Magic Island. 1 nov 2016
Anthony Aalto became HART’s newest board member Wednesday following the most contentious debate over qualifications that any nominee to that board has ever faced plus a slim Council vote to approve him. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Uno was vocal in his desire to remain on the HART board under a new term, and he even testified at Wednesday’s meeting in a last-ditch effort to stay. He previously called the council leaders’ move to replace him with Aalto insulting.

Aalto will fill one seat of the 14 seats on rail’s volunteer oversight board. He’ll be among its nine voting members, three of whom are appointed by the council. Their duties under the city charter are relatively limited – basically to hire and fire HART’s executive director, provide budget plans, help set rail policy and to approve bonds for construction.

Nonetheless, the debate over who should fill that seat grew unusually fierce in recent weeks. 

No prior HART board nominees in the agency’s decade-long history has received nearly the level of public scrutiny over their qualifications and potential conflicts of interest as Aalto did, particularly by rail critics. 

The council received some 83 pages of written testimony on Aalto’s nomination for Wednesday, most of it in opposition.

“Being nominated … has put me in the crosshairs,” the former Sierra Club Oahu Group chairman acknowledged to the Council on Wednesday. He said he’s still developing a thick skin to deal with all the scrutiny and criticism, much of it aimed at his ties to pro-rail interests that previously helped fund his documentaries on local issues. 

“It’s been very unpleasant,” Aalto said. 

Joe Uno speaks to media during press conference held with Council member Tulba and Tsuneyoshi outside Honolulu Hale.
Joe Uno broke ranks with most of his fellow board members when he called for the city to explore alternatives to elevated rail past Middle Street. The stance helped convince a slim council majority to replace him on the board. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

However, Waters, who asked Aalto to join the board, and Cordero, who helped advance his nomination last month, asked the public to give Aalto a chance, saying he would surprise his critics. 

“It’s insane in my mind to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result over the last 10 or so years,” Waters said Wednesday. He approached Aalto “because he is new blood, he is different. He’s tenacious. He asks good questions … and I’m asking folks to give him a chance.”

The debate over the appointment of a single board seat became a flashpoint in the growing discontent over rail’s management and direction, as the budget has swelled to an estimated $12.4 billion with an estimated official deficit of around $3.6 billion. 

Uno had served on the HART board for just over a year, filling a vacant seat, but he swiftly stood out. Among the voting members, he was the only one to call on the city to consider alternatives to building rail’s elevated guideway and stations beyond Middle Street.  

The idea of stopping remains popular among many on Oahu who are weary of the megaproject’s growing costs, yet such a move would trim the line from 20 miles and 21 stations to just 15 miles and 13 stations.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi was among several city leaders at Wednesday’s meeting who said that they’d met with Uno amid the growing controversy. 

Uno discussed with the mayor the possibility of stopping rail at Lagoon Drive, Blangiardi said. 

“I don’t mind a dissenting voice. In fact, I embrace a dissenting voice,” Blangiardi told the Council on Wednesday. But “he’s out of touch with where we really are and what we’re doing.”

Blangiardi, a former general manager at Hawaii News Now, told the council that he had worked with Aalto to bring “Railroading Paradise,” Aalto’s 2013 film on the debate over rail, to the station. The partnership was so successful that they opted to partner on subsequent documentaries on homelessness and climate change, Blangiardi said.

However, the mayor added Wednesday that he had nothing to do with Aalto’s nomination to the HART board.

Blangiardi further stated that his administration is working on plans for rail with the Federal Transit Administration but that those plans can’t be made public yet, echoing comments he made to the HART board last month.

A Change Of Heart

Tulba voted last month to advance Aalto’s nomination, but he later held a press conference with Tsuneyoshi calling for Uno to stay on board. Tulba also introduced the floor amendment to appoint Uno. He did not give a reason for the turnaround at Wednesday’s meeting.

Tsuneyoshi, meanwhile, sharply criticized the resolution appointing Aalto because it revised the qualifications needed to join the HART board that the Council had approved in 2019. 

Now, instead of just extensive experience related to transit or a similar discipline relevant to the rail project, the Aalto resolution also allowed “substituted” expertise related to community engagement, a familiarity with the local rail project and the ability to “research, analyze, evaluate and weigh the voluminous details” related to Honolulu rail.

Honolulu City Council member Augie Tulba speaks to media outside Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu Councilman Augie Tulba advocated for keeping Joe Uno on the HART board after previously voting to advance Anthony Aalto’s nomination in a Council committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Tsuneyoshi said the resolution’s qualification criteria appeared to be tailor-made for Aalto. She noted that HART recently faced criticism for writing contract specifications that seemed to mirror the qualifications of its former board chairwoman, Colleen Hanabusa. 

“If anything, we need to learn from our mistakes and not draft criteria for a specific person,” Tsuneyoshi said Wednesday.

Aalto said that in the years since Railroading Paradise was released, he’s lobbied HART leaders to employ better designs and features along the rail system that could save local taxpayers millions of dollars. He said he pushed for HART to capture energy from the trains’ braking, and that he encouraged the agency to create its own micro-grid in order to avoid substantial electricity charges from Hawaiian Electric Co.

He said he would still like to change the rail route past Middle Street if possible, moving it mauka (upland) and out of the island’s flood plains, possibly tunneling under Beretania Street as previously considered.

That insistence has put him at odds with former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, developers and other rail interests, Aalto said. If they’ve been giving him money hoping he would promote rail interests, then it’s been “very badly spent,” he added.

Uno, meanwhile, thanked the council minority that tried to keep him on the board.

“It is not easy for them to go up against the standing powers – the council chair and the mayor – but I am grateful that they voted with their conscience in my favor,” he wrote in an email after the meeting.

“There are thousands of voters who know that I spoke for them while I was on the HART Board, asking tough questions and holding decision-makers, other board members, the staff and rail vendors accountable.”

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