This article appears in our free, monthly Infrastructure e-newsletter. Click to subscribe.
Kirk Caldwell, a former managing director for the city and county of Honolulu and now its mayor-elect, championed a controversial plan during his mayoral campaign for a 20-mile elevated rail line that's projected to cost more than $5 billion. His opponent, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, is one of its biggest critics. He pledged to kill the project if elected.
I spoke with Caldwell about the future of elevated rail and the path forward for the project a day after the Federal Transit Administration announced its intention to sign a $1.55 billion funding guarantee agreement for the project. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What's next for elevated rail? How are you going to approach the project?
The first priority is greater openness and transparency with the community on the rail project. There's been a lot of pushback. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the city became disengaged with the community on rail. It didn't reach out and address the concerns and fears and all the rest. HART [Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation] didn't have an executive director. The ball moved backwards. Reaching out to the community is important.
Next is greater fiscal control and really watching everything that goes out -- the change orders, the delays. Part of people's fear is, "Can we pay for this thing? Is there going to be enough money?"
Then there's addressing the visual impact. How do we make it more visually appealing as it comes into downtown Honolulu through the historic part of town? Can we, for example, make it blend with the color of buildings? Can we plant trees along it so they hide the elevated portion? Can the elevated parts be brought down so it interacts with the street level? Can sound barriers be tempered glass instead of concrete? The visual things would lessen the impact.
How much authority and oversight does the city of Honolulu have over the project?
I'll team up with HART on a regular basis. While HART is tasked with building it, the mayor and the city has ultimate responsibility. I'll be engaged and hands on. I think that's really critical as we move forward. It's a semi-autonomous agency. The mayor and council make appointments to the board. Some of the mayor's cabinet sits on the board. It's still a city project. I don't think of my job as micromanaging the project and telling the board what it needs to do. I'll be engaging with HART and making sure they have the support of the mayor's office.
Cayetano filed a lawsuit to try to stop the project, and in November, a federal judge ruled that as the city pursued elevated rail, it didn't do enough to identify cultural properties, that it needs to reevaluate the possibility of a tunnel and that it needs to consider rail's impact on a park. What does the ruling mean for the future of the project?
We'll put together a group to work with HART on how do we build rail better and see what kind of recommendations can be made that don't delay the project. I was a practicing attorney for 30 years, and my first 15 were doing litigation. If I was the defendant's attorney, in a case with 57 counts filed, and I said I got 54 of them dismissed outright -- including the critical one -- I'd come back and say it was successful. A clean sweep, slam dunk is difficult in a case like this. This is a bump in the road. I assume there can be more lawsuits filed. We'll address them as they come.
What else is on tap for you, besides your focus on rail?
A lot of the election was focused on rail. Issues like sewer, water, parks -- issues that can have an immediate impact -- that's why I liked municipal government more than my time in state government. I think that resonated with people. Rail was at 48 percent support, and I was at 55 percent, so I got people who were anti-rail supporting me. As it got closer to the election, people realized they wanted a mayor who's going to take care of the garbage, make sure the street gets repaved and be someone who will take care of the park people's grandkids play in. I was talking about the issues. Ben Cayetano was saying, "I'm going to get elected and kill rail."