It was Dan Inouye’s parting gift to Hawaii. The late U.S. Senator secured $1.5 billion in federal funds for Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail line.

The project had been the subject of a decades-long battle between those who wanted rail and those who saw it as a boondoggle. Without the senator, who knows when the issue would have been resolved.

But since “Uncle Dan” left us, it hasn’t been clear who would drive the rail project to completion.

Now it is. The nonprofit pro-rail group Move Oahu Forward, whose job is to galvanize support for the 20-mile elevated rail line, has just named Inouye’s former chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, as its new executive director. The group played a lead role in promoting rail during the 2012 mayoral election.

With Sabas at the helm, Move Oahu Forward will be well-positioned to shape the debate about the evolution of public transit, as well as its interaction with businesses near the planned rail line that is slated to run from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. Sabas’ role will allow her to act as rail’s dealmaker.

“In many ways Jennifer was the hand and the voice of the senator when he wasn’t there to fully push this project forward,” said Dan Grabauskas, executive director and CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART).

Sabas has been the point person in making sure Hawaii’s largest public works project stayed the course, Grabauskas said. She connected local officials to those at the federal level whenever questions arose about whether Washington would come through with the money.

And when the billion dollar promissory note was signed in Washington, D.C., who was there to celebrate? There was Inouye’s widow, Irene, the Hawaii delegation and, of course, Sabas.

Since taking over at Move Oahu Forward, Sabas has met with Grabauskas on several occasions to talk about the future of the rail project, which is currently on a construction hiatus due to a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling. Grabauskas said Sabas’ new job is to continue strengthening support for the project, something he thinks she’s in a particularly good position to do.

“Clearly there are probably few people on Oahu who know (rail’s) history and its current (status) better,” Grabauskas said. “She can speak more eloquently and personally than anybody about the importance of this to Senator Inouye’s legacy and why he thought it was so important to the place he lived his entire life to serve.”

Move Oahu Forward’s board is made up of top executives from Hawaii’s leading industries in health, finance, transportation, tourism and development.

Jennifer Sabas

Submitted photo

Jennifer Sabas has been named the executive director of Move Oahu Forward.

On the business side, board members include Constance Lau at Hawaiian Electric Industries, David Carey at Outrigger Enterprises Group, Peter Ho at Bank of Hawaii, and Michael Gold at the Hawaii Medical Service Association.

They are joined by strong union representation that includes Randy Perreira, president of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, and John White, executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, which is tied to the Hawaii Carpenters Union.

Sabas adds additional political clout to the mix, although she insists that she is more of a “facilitator” for the group.

“I start from the premise that one of the last things the senator did was to make sure we did get a full funding grant agreement,” Sabas told Civil Beat in a phone interview. “And now the election is over and our organization is going to work with businesses to work with the city and HART to build rail as best as we can.”

Move Oahu Forward was formed in April 2012 at the peak of the Honolulu mayoral campaign. At that time former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano was the frontrunner in a three-way race that included current Mayor Kirk Caldwell and then-incumbent Peter Carlisle.

As part of his platform, Cayetano hoped to kill the rail project, something that put him at odds with Inouye and the political machine that backed the senator.

One goal of Move Oahu Forward was to convince the public that rail was a good idea, and to bolster that argument with the business acumen of its board members. The nonprofit raised money and bought advertising, but because it’s a 501(c)4 tax-exempt organization it was not required to reveal the names of its funders.

With the election over, Sabas said she doesn’t expect Move Oahu Forward to purchase any more ads. The goal now is to work behind the scenes, putting government officials in contact with one another, and to make sure that key voices in the business community are heard.

This last point is particularly important, she said, especially due to the amount of development that’s anticipated to take place around the rail line’s transit stations.

“The mission really is to do what we can to make this a successful project for the people,” Sabas said. “For me personally, this is about the legacy of my boss, and I definitely have a reason to want to do it.”

But Sabas isn’t working full-time for Move Oahu Forward, at least not yet.

She’s is also spending time bringing Inouye’s papers back to Hawaii from Washington, D.C., along with other memorabilia the senator collected over the years, such as his military medals and the pen that was used when Hawaii officially became a state.

Sabas said there are 1,400 boxes full of documents related to Inouye’s time in office, and of those, only 300 are in the islands. The plan is to eventually archive the information at a museum-like facility at the University of Hawaii. Think of it as a mini-presidential library, but focusing on Senator Inouye.

The Inouye archives project is being funded through donations, although Sabas declined to say how much has been raised or what it might cost. She did estimate that it could take about two years to catalog and archive all of Inouye’s papers.

That’s not surprising given that Inouye was in Congress since statehood. “The story of Dan Inouye,” Sabas said, “is the story of modern Hawaii.”

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