After more than 12 years of fighting die-hard opposition and unfavorable court decisions, the political powers in Hawaii have adopted a new tactic to get the bulldozers moving on what is expected to be, mile for mile, the most expensive highway ever built.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) has introduced legislation that would suspend any and all federal laws -- past, present and future -- that stand in the way of Interstate H-3, a 10-mile stretch of road that would slice two mile-long tunnels through towering volcanoes on the windward side of Oahu.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has scheduled a hearing today on the bill, which Inouye's office says was offered as a chance for the panel to decide whether the courts are properly interpreting federal highway law.
But congressional aides said the hearing was scheduled only after committee Chairman Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) objected to Inouye's effort to slip the provision into the Transportation Department's appropriations bill earlier this year.
At a projected cost of more than $1 billion, H-3 would be the costliest highway project ever undertaken -- a distinction it won when New York threw in the towel on its Westway project earlier this year.
But, like Westway, the Hawaiian highway has been ensnarled in legal battles almost from the time it came off the drawing board in the 1960s.
The highway was initially justified as a needed link between the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station and Pearl Harbor, on opposite sides of the island. The Defense Department now says it does not need the highway.
Supporters argue that the road is still needed to relieve congestion on the two existing four-lane highways that connect the windward side's 125,000 residents with employment and population centers in Honolulu and Ewa on the leeward side.
But among the staunchest opponents are some residents of the windward side, who believe that the highway would worsen congestion by inviting more development.
"H-3 won't relieve rush hour," said Boyce Brown, an attorney for the opponents. "It doesn't even connect those communities to the main employment areas." Current commuter problems, he said, could be solved at a fraction of H-3's cost by creating some reversible lanes (one-way out in the morning and one-way back in the evening) and supporting mass transportation. Environmentalists also have opposed the project, fearing damage to wildlife and historic areas in Oahu's fragile and largely untouched valleys.
The skirmish has been fought all the way to the Supreme Court twice, and twice the high court declined to touch rulings in favor of the road's opponents.
Most recently, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the highway violated a law designed to protect parks and historic areas from highway intrusions. As now designed, the six-lane expressway would be built along the boundary of a wilderness park called Ho'omaluhia, or "Place of Peace and Tranquility."
The ruling infuriated supporters of the project, who contend that the park was developed with land purchased for the H-3 project. "That park was created by the highway's construction," said an aide to Inouye. "Now the court says we can't build H-3 because it runs too close to the park."
Opponents say that the park stemmed from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project and would have been created whether the highway was there or not.
Brown and other H-3 opponents said there are alternatives to skirting the park, but they would prefer to see Hawaii follow New York's lead and trade the project in on an equal amount of money for mass transit.
"It's a bad idea and it has always been a bad idea," said David Burwell of the National Wildlife Federation. "It's a classic example of the remnants of the interstate system that haven't been built. The best ones have been done, and the ones that are left are the turkeys."