HONOLULU - The federal government Wednesday formally agreed to provide Honolulu with $1.5 billion to build a 20-mile rail line linking the western suburbs of Oahu with the city's center.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff signed an agreement for the money in Washington at a ceremony attended by Hawaii's congressional delegation and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle.
"This historic project will cut commute times west of the city by more than 30 minutes each way, drastically improving the quality of life for residents who want to spend less time in their cars, more time with their families, and enjoy cleaner air," Rogoff said in a U.S. Department of Transportation statement.
The Federal Transit Administration last month notified the Senate Appropriations Committee of its plans to provide Honolulu with the money, so the agreement was expected.
The rail line will stop at 21 stations from Kapolei - Oahu's "second city" - to Ala Moana Center, Oahu's largest shopping center, which is next to Waikiki. Later extensions could take the train to the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus and into Waikiki.
Honolulu voters gave rail the go-ahead in 2008, when a slim majority cast ballots in favor of then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann's plan to build a steel-wheeled system. Last month, pro-rail mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell defeated his anti-rail opponent, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, by 53 percent to 45 percent in the general election.
But the project continues to have outspoken opponents, and it's currently facing a legal challenge in federal court.
A lack of federal funding helped scuttle a shorter rail line in 1981. Another try in the early 1990s faltered when the City Council voted against a tax increase, despite a commitment from the federal government to pay one-third of its $1.8 billion cost.
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who played an important role in securing the funds as chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, announced last month that the FTA would sign the deal.
"The path to this agreement with the federal government has not been easy, but like the construction of the H-3 Freeway for Windward Oahu residents, and significant improvements to Kalanianaole Highway for East Honolulu, the rail transit project will bring welcome relief to West Oahu residents who spend too much time stuck in traffic," Inouye said at the time.
The federal government is providing $1.8 billion of the rail line's $5.5 billion cost. Oahu taxpayers are funding the rest with a 0.5 percent surcharge on the general excise tax paid on Oahu.