If Ben Cayetano is a naysayer and Peter Carlisle is a yes man, does that give Kirk Caldwell a window to become Honolulu’s next mayor?

That’s the political strategy Caldwell’s now trying when it comes to the controversial Honolulu rail system.

The former acting mayor and longtime rail proponent called reporters to his Nimitz Highway headquarters Tuesday afternoon for what his campaign promised would be a “major statement” on the proposed 20-mile system.

Instead, Caldwell talked about how to “build rail better,” painting Cayetano as a single-minded “just say no” candidate and Carlisle as a do-it-at-any-cost candidate. He said he wants to re-engage with the community to take another last look at the design for the fourth and final segment of the system, in Downtown Honolulu.

He’s trying to walk a political tightrope.

Caldwell said he wants to “take a breath” so the city can listen to the community now and avoid heartburn later, but repeatedly said he does not want to delay work at all. He said he wants to give the community a chance to rethink rail, but ruled out big changes like taking the elevated system down to street level because that would be outside of the scope of the existing environmental review.

The changes he did talk about were pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things.

Caldwell’s examples were things like wider gaps between columns, a narrower fixed guideway and rock patterns designed to blend into surrounding buildings. He worked with architects on his designs, but couldn’t promise that they’d stand up to engineering rigor. He talked about station design and planting trees.

To opponents, that’s got to sound an awful lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And to those already working on rail, it sounds an awful lot like what they’re already working on. But Caldwell knows he can’t attract hardcore rail opponents; it’s rail agnostics and lukewarm supporters he’s targeting.

One television reporter asked him point-blank if the press conference and “build rail better” rollout was a political move designed to create some daylight between himself and Carlisle. Caldwell’s answer: “Absolutely not.” He said he cares about doing rail right.

That led to my question: Are you saying you’d make these changes if you’re elected mayor, or are these ideas for the current mayor to implement now? Caldwell’s answer: No. 2.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has already started the contracting process to find a design firm for the city center. HART could award a design-bid-build contract for the fixed guideway downtown as soon as this summer and will be advertising for station design contracts later this year.

By the time a new mayor takes office, it might be too late to make changes.

Caldwell started and ended his press conference reiterating his longstanding support for the system and the benefits it will provide Honolulu families. Will voters look at Caldwell’s open-minded “build rail better” platform as a more reasonable alternative to the “plow forward” ways of Carlisle?

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