The half-built, long-delayed Honolulu rail project is as unpopular as ever with Honolulu voters, while strong public support for the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea appears to be holding relatively steady, according to a new Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll.

After a decade of rail drama including years of delays and colossal cost overruns, public opinion on rail hasn’t changed much: Voters today are just as sour on the project as when the entire ordeal began, according to the new poll data.

When the city entered into a formal agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to build the Honolulu rail line nearly a decade ago, the full 20-mile transit project was expected to cost about $5.2 billion. A Civil Beat poll earlier that year (2012) showed that 55% of Honolulu voters opposed the project.

Now, the city estimates a shortened version of the troubled project will end up costing $9.93 billion, and a new Civil Beat/HNN poll shows 52% of Honolulu voters oppose rail today. The percentage difference between the 2012 survey and the new poll is within the 4% margin of error, suggesting there has been little shift in public opinion.

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Support for the rail project among Honolulu voters stood at just 34% in 2012, and today is 36%, according to the new Civil Beat/HNN poll.

The new statewide polling data also shows public opinion on the rail issue is deeply partisan. In last month’s survey, 50% of Democrats statewide said they support the project, while just 18% of Republicans backed the project. A total of 29% of voters who described themselves as independent said they support rail.

Given the setbacks the project has suffered, there has been much public debate recently about where the rail line should end. Among the options being discussed are plans to end the line at Middle Street, to end it at Aloha Tower, to halt the line at Halekauwila Street in Kakaako, or to end it as originally planed at Ala Moana Center.

The city has proposed in its latest recovery plan to stop rail in Kakaako, but that appears to be an unpopular choice. Only 9% of Oahu voters said they favor stopping in Kakaako, while 46% want the project extended all the way to Ala Moana as the city planned to do a decade ago.

A total of 18% those surveyed support ending the project at Middle Street, while 14% support stopping at Aloha Tower.

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Catherine Fly, a social worker who lives in Makiki, is one of those who wants to halt the transit project at Aloha Tower. “I don’t support completing it to Ala Moana, I think it should be cut shorter” to try to save money and stop the bleeding, she said.

Fly said she opposes rail, but by now the project is so far along that she just wants to get it done.

“At this point, I just support finishing it, because there has already been so much time and money spent,” she said. “I feel like the money and budgeting and planning was all very mismanaged, (and) that it’s been a really big waste of money and resources.”

None of the partially built rail system is open to the public, but the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation hopes to have a segment of the rail line ready for public use by October.

People Still Like The TMT

Support for the Thirty Meter Telescope has also remained fairly stable during the past three years, with one important exception.

A total of 58% of voters statewide who were surveyed last month said they strongly or somewhat support the project, while 25% said they somewhat or strongly oppose the project. That compares with a Civil Beat poll done in 2019 that found 64% of voters supported the project at that time, while 31% opposed it.

But support for the Thirty Meter Telescope has declined among Hawaiians. Today, 57% now say they somewhat or strongly oppose the project, while in 2019, only 48% of the people who identified themselves as Native Hawaiian opposed the TMT project.

Andrew Klukowski, 75, is one of those who strongly opposes the Thirty Meter Telescope, in part because of his experiences as a history teacher on Maui. A half-dozen of his students made the trek to the Big Island to join the protests in 2019, and the experience was empowering for them, he said.

“They just gave this impression that going over there, it strengthened their resolve,” he said. “There’s too many telescopes there already, there’s too many telescopes on Haleakala, and Native Hawaiians have a reason for the protests there. They don’t want to see any more defiling of what they consider to be sacred land.”

Jon Kunimura, a retired union carpenter who lives in Captain Cook on the Big Island, completely disagrees.

“I’m all for it,” he said of the project. “The one thing that I brought up in the union meetings is that, to me, the telescope is bigger than Hawaii. It’s humanity.”

“I told the Hawaiians, ‘When you guys put yourself in front of humanity, that ain’t right … I feel for you guys when you guys protest, I just feel like when you stand in the way of science and humanity, you putting your culture before that, that’s not right,'” Kunimura said. “That’s just my view.”

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The new polling data also suggests that for some voters, the TMT issue is no longer as important as it seemed when the protests against the telescope erupted on the mountain in mid-2019.

In 2019, only 6% of voters polled said they were unsure about the project, or said it did not matter. But the new Civil Beat/HNN poll shows that 17% of voters now say either they are unsure about the project, or the issue is unimportant to them.

The Civil Beat/HNN poll, taken June 28-30, surveyed 1,120 registered voters. The poll’s margin of error for the statewide sample is 3 percentage points.

Of that sample, 780 registered voters were polled on Oahu. The poll’s margin of error for the Oahu sample is 4 percentage points.

Civil Beat conducted its poll with MRG Research using a combination of interactive voice response technology (touch-tone polling) and a survey administered online.

Both the touch-tone and online version of the poll were conducted using random, probability-based samplings of registered voters in Hawaii.

The touch-tone version was conducted by contacting landline telephones. The online version was conducted by texting cellphones and linking poll participants to an online survey optimized for smartphones.

Read other recent Civil Beat/HNN poll stories here.

Read the full results of Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll on the approval ratings here:

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