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Commuter rail project in Hawaii hangs on today's vote

Traffic in Hawaii.

Ben Cayetano, former two-term Hawaii governor who threw his hat into the ring for mayor of Honolulu.

At a recent campaign stop for Ben Cayetano.

Maeda Timpson typically spends 90 minutes commuting 20 miles to her job at a downtown bank.

When it comes to the presidential race in Hawaii, there isn’t much suspense; native son Barack Obama is a shoe-in. But the stakes are huge for the largest public works project in the state’s history. The leading candidate for mayor of Honolulu, Ben Cayetano, has pledged to derail a $5 billion rail project that many have been counting on to ease a terrible problem with traffic.

Traffic might not seem so bad if you're a typical tourist flying into Honolulu Airport and straight to Waikiki Beach. But it's a different story for a lot of residents who live in crowded West Oahu. They endure what studies say is perhaps the worst traffic in the nation.

Maeda Timpson typically spends 90 minutes commuting 20 miles to her job at a downtown bank. The morning, my ride along with her was no different; it was a wall of red lights as far as I could see in front of us.

Four years ago, Timpson was so fed up with traffic, she started a group called Go Rail Go. The organization helped pass a measure that funded rail, something she said was long overdue.

Timpson remembers the days when you had time fo family picnics on the beach. Now, she says, "When the kids have events or soccer games, we can’t come! Because we are stuck in the traffic."

Timpson says what gives her hope for the future are the giant concrete pillars that have been rising just a few miles from her home. The pillars are designed to carry the rail line.

Dan Grabauskas heads Oahu’s rail project. He notes that there will be 21 new rail stations. "The project is 20 miles long and will take about 40,000 cars off the road."

A rapid transit has been debated here in Oahu for decades. But with hundreds of millions spent on actual construction, it seemed like rail was finally moving forward. Until former two-term Hawaii governor Ben Cayetano threw his hat into the ring for mayor of Honolulu.

On a recent campaign stop, Cayetano said, "Many people think rail is more efficient than bus, this is a myth."

Cayetano is running pretty much running on a single issue: to kill rail. He says he wants to replace it with better roads and more efficient buses.

His opponents point out the island will forfeit a billion and a half dollars of federal funding.

But Cayetano says it isn't worth the total taxpayer expense. "You know, $1.5 billion might seem attractive, but it doesn’t make sense to build a system that is not going to serve the people. You should never build anything just to get money."

The rail line faces some additional hurdles, a lawsuit has stalled construction for the moment. But Dan Grabauskas is keeping a brave face. He says big transit projects like his always face big challenges and that rail is simply needed.

"Mr. Cayetano is missing an inconvenient truth, which is that we have the worst traffic in the United States," Grabauskas says. "We’ve looked at alternatives from bus rapid transit to adding more lanes to the highway, and this is really the best."

The race for mayor of Honolulu is considered simply too close to call. But something everyone agrees on, the future of rail is on the line tonight.

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The Honolulu Civil Beat, an online investigative news organization, has covered the rail controversy on Oahu extensively and you can read more of that coverage here.

About the author

Joe Rubin is director of digital media for Honolulu Civil Beat, an online investigative news organization. Civil Beat has covered the rail controversy on Oahu extensively.

Ben Cayetano, former two-term Hawaii governor who threw his hat into the ring for mayor of Honolulu.

At a recent campaign stop for Ben Cayetano.

Maeda Timpson typically spends 90 minutes commuting 20 miles to her job at a downtown bank.

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