Plaintiff Paulette Kaleikini prevails
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Hawai‘i Supreme Court decision lights up the flaw underlying all the other flaws

Let’s not forget history. Last Friday’s Hawaii Supreme Court ruling (Kaleikini v. Yoshioka) on Hawaiian burials brings us back to the root of what is wrong with the entire Rail project: the decision made in or before 2008 to lock in the project by starting in ‘Ewa and building toward Honolulu.

Think back. When you first heard that the Rail was starting in ‘Ewa, what was your reaction? Mine was, “That sounds very strange.” Up to that time I supported the Rail project, but I began to ask questions.

I found out simple things, such as that no city had ever started building in an outlying area. When I had conversations with people, even the most avid supporters of Rail usually shook their heads. I couldn’t find anyone except Toru Hamayasu, then the project director, who defended the idea of starting construction in ‘Ewa.

It was in this light that the Rod Haraga story became interesting. Haraga headed the State Transportation Department during the Lingle Administration. Before that, he played a role in developing the Los Angeles Metro. For a period he advised Mayor Mufi Hannemann on transit.

He advised Hannemann not to start the Rail in the countryside. Hannemann said he was going to do it anyway. Haraga asked why. Hannemann is attributed to having said it would be easier. Reputedly, Hannemann told Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi much of the same thing. This story is old news that never made print, but no single piece of history is more to the point. It spells out what is implicit in the Supreme Court decision.

Starting construction in ‘Ewa was the flaw that underlies all the other flaws, the manipulation that underlies all the other manipulations. From the point of view of Hannemann and those who bought in, it was the strategy that would at last build the elevated heavy rail. That is, begin construction along the path of least resistance, where there are no bones and no historic buildings. Keep your head down. Keep planting those giant columns. By the time you get to Honolulu, you will have spent several billion dollars, and nothing can stop you.

Perhaps when Hannemann looks in the mirror, two failed elections later, he tells himself that he heroically sacrificed himself for a great cause. I would turn that around by saying his legacy is still very much with us. Specifically, his excessive cleverness lives on in the decision of the Supreme Court. “No, you can’t do the archaeology of Honolulu when you’re on top of Honolulu,” the Court is saying. “You have to do it now.” Put another way, “Don’t pretend that your four segments are four projects; they are one project.”

For those of us who once supported Rail transit, or still support it, think what the project might have looked like if, logically, it had started in Honolulu. First, it would not have depended on massive excavations. It would not have been set on giant columns. It would not have cut off the Civic Center, downtown and Chinatown from the waterfront.

In short, it would have been a combination of expanded buses and trolley-like transit (or “light rail”) that fits with the ambience of our island city. It would have grown outward toward Leeward Oahu and to the University of Hawaii, the area of single greatest need. As it went, it would have developed ridership, paying more of its own way and building the base of public support, rather than destroying it. For the beleaguered Leeward commuter, it would have taken cars off the road, freeing road space. It would have been about transit, and not about redevelopment of the island.

The “easier” route set up innumerable conflicts, the most agonizing being a conflict with Hawaiian rights. I testified to HART about this aspect, provoking smiles. I said that, once more, native Hawaiians were being set up as the fall guys in a development conflict. All I can say now is, “Hurrah for brave Paulette Kaleikini.”

The unanimous Supreme Court decision against the city and state is a reassuring reminder that one of our great institutions is working properly. But why did it come to this? The rest of us should have squared our shoulders and confronted City Hall–and the powerful forces behind this Rail project–and called them on the preposterous idea of building from ‘Ewa.

Tom Coffman is author of I Respectfully Dissent, a biography of the late Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Edward Nakamura.