The man whom Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials have tapped to serve as the agency’s new CEO had a rocky departure from his job as general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

After escalating criticism in the wake of a pair of 2008 train crashes, Daniel Grabauskas finally opted to resign from that position in August 2009. The MBTA board agreed to pay out his contract to the tune of more than $320,000.

The state transportation secretary said at the time that it was “a good time for a separation” from Grabauskas, according to a 2009 New England Cable News broadcast, but some Massachusetts leaders wanted Grabauskas out sooner.

The month before he resigned, three MBTA board members wrote a blistering letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, saying they had “certainly lost confidence in the (Grabauskas’) ability to take ownership of the failings of an agency he has led for nearly five years,” according to the Boston Globe.

The board members continued: “Nor do we have any confidence that he can execute a plan that will address our concerns at this critical juncture.” Other board members and state officials defended Grabauskas as “responsive, innovative, and focused on improving customer service and safety,” the newspaper reported.

Grabauskas is a Republican who was appointed under former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and HART Human Resources Chairman Keslie Hui told reporters that Honolulu officials view Grabauskas’ MBTA ouster as politically motivated. Hui has also been quoted as suggesting Grabauskas was caught up in the switch when a new Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, took office.

But Massachusetts Democrats weren’t the only ones to raise concerns about the MBTA under Grabauskas’ direction. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, blasted the MBTA for a “lack of safety culture” under Grabauskas’ leadership.

At the time, Grabauskas dismissed Sumwalt’s characterization as “blatantly false,” according to the Associated Press.

Grabauskas couldn’t be reached for comment on Saturday by Civil Beat.

Sumwalt’s comments came after a fatal train crash in Boston that federal officials said could have been prevented.

Federal investigators blamed rusted wiring in the May 2008 collision that killed a 24-year-old train operator and injured seven others. The wiring problem prevented signal lights from working properly, they said. Operator error was also a contributing factor, but the MBTA lacked a “train control system that would have intervened to stop the train and prevent the collision,” according to a 2009 NTSB report about the accident.

In that same report, federal officials pointed to the following aspects of the train system — known locally as the T —  that they found to be “unacceptable:”

• The absence of a control system that can automatically stop a train before a collision
• The possibility of gaps in maintenance, since operators were not required to report broken signals
• Failure to properly screen train operators for possible sleep disorders
• Failure to adequately educate train operators about fatigue

Money Woes

The cash-strapped MBTA also faced a growing backlog of repairs and upgrades under Grabauskas’ watch. The MBTA has suffered as a result of its heavy debt burden and waning sales-tax revenue, financial woes that have been decades in the making.

Attempts to curb debt and balance the MBTA budget under Grabauskas’ leadership were a “failure,” according to a 2009 independent review that found the agency’s plan “unrealistic.”

Grabauskas faced additional criticism for his handling of money during his time at the helm of the MBTA. For example, he backed a 9 percent pay increase for MBTA executives while he was also threatening a large fare hike, according to the Boston Globe. Under pressure from the governor, Grabauskas agreed to rescind the pay raise.

The August 2008 kerfuffle over pay raises wasn’t the first time that Grabauskas was pegged as out of touch in his executive role. The previous month, the Boston Herald pointed out that Grabauskas drove an SUV to work, rather than taking the train.

Regardless of his personal ridership habits, there’s no question that Grabauskas was aware of the T’s financial problems. In a November 2009 essay published in civic advocacy group MassINC’s Commonwealth magazine after his resignation, Grabauskas acknowledged that the train system “has serious financial problems that affect its ability to assure the highest quality of service.”

In the years since Grabauskas’ departure, that bleak outlook doesn’t appear to have changed much. Even with fare increases and cuts to train service, an October 2011 report from one Massachusetts-based think tank said the financial stress on the system posed real questions about how the MBTA would continue to operate. The report, published by MassINC, called the need to find a revenue solution for the MBTA “urgent.”

In his 2009 essay for Commonwealth, Grabauskas wrote that the “only option was to borrow” at a time when trains needed to be repaired. He also wrote that he hoped “this crippling cycle” of borrowing could be broken.

“Public confidence that money is not being wasted at the T will be essential if more money is to be invested in public transportation,” Grabauskas wrote.

Now, Grabauskas is preparing to take the reins of an agency that wants to avoid the mess that the MBTA has found itself in — and at a time when public confidence in Honolulu’s rail project is uncertain. If approved by the board, Grabauskas would begin as HART’s CEO in April.

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