Editor’s Note: Civil Beat has spent the past six months examining financial records relating to the Honolulu rail project. “Off Track” is an ongoing series that explores what’s happening to the taxpayer money that is going into the biggest public works project in Hawaii history. Continue the conversation through Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #railtalk.

On May 25, 2013, Honolulu rail chief Dan Grabauskas boarded a plane for Europe to check in on the Italian train manufacturer that had signed a $1.4 billion contract with the city to design, build and operate the driverless system.

AnsaldoBreda and AnsaldoSTS, which together form Ansaldo Honolulu JV, were facing a deluge of bad press for shoddy construction and broken contractual promises from Buffalo, New York, to Gothenburg, Sweden.

Ansaldo’s parent company, Finmeccanica SpA, had problems of its own. The company was bleeding money, and its CEO had been accused of offering bribes for contracts. He has since been acquitted.

Grabauskas’ trip, which included stops in Denmark and Italy, cost taxpayers $7,041, according to city budget data obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request.

Copenhagen Metro

Honolulu’s driverless commuter rail system is modeled after the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark.

Flickr: kalleboo

But Grabauskas, who heads the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation that oversees construction of the city’s $6 billion rail project, is a frequent flier. His travel expenses since he was hired total almost $57,000.

The budget records show that he’s not the only one who has tapped the rail travel fund in the past few years. Dozens of others, from local politicians to university transit experts, have used the project’s money to pay for airfare, hotels, to cover their per diem, whether to attend conferences or meet with officials from the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C.

Between July 2007 and November 2014 at least $479,000 was spent on travel-related expenses for about 90 people, paid for from the rail transit fund, according to city budget data. For comparison, the city, which has about 8,000 employees, spent just over $1 million in fiscal year 2014 on travel, including between the neighbor islands.

‘Travel Is Just More Expensive’

The biggest travelers for rail — as measured by cost to taxpayers — were Grabauskas and his predecessor Toru Hamayasu, who accounted for more than $100,000 in expenses.

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is credited with making the project a reality for Honolulu, also racked up the miles, traveling to Boston, Miami, Los Angeles and Toronto, among other places, to meet with transit officials and attend conferences in which rail was a central theme.

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But travel is a big part of the job, according to Grabauskas. There were a lot trips between Hawaii and Washington, D.C., as officials here tried to convince the federal government to sign off on a $1.5 billion grant for the project.

HART still has to meet with the federal government on a regular basis, he said, although sometimes those meetings take place at the FTA offices in San Francisco. Many rail employees also have specialized training and certification they can’t get on the islands or over through a video teleconference screen.

“Living in Hawaii and working in Hawaii business travel is just more expensive than in other states,” Grabauskas said. “If you’re in California and you have a training in Nevada you can just hop in your car and get there.”

HART does its best to be “judicious” when it comes to sending people to the mainland, he said, but it’s also unavoidable.

More than $300,000 in travel expenses can be attributed to HART employees, including nearly $35,000 spent by Deputy Executive Director Brennon Morioka and Elizabeth Scanlon, a planning director who played a prominent role in preparing the city’s application for federal grant funding. City employees make up the next largest share of expenditures, or about $100,000.

“Living in Hawaii and working in Hawaii business travel is just more expensive than in other states.” — Dan Grabauskas

Several policy makers, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell and members of both the HART Board of Directors and Honolulu City Council, have traveled on rail business as well, expensing more than $70,000 from the rail kitty.

Much of the rest of the money went to bringing mainland experts to Honolulu to discuss issues such as rail line safety and transit integration on university campuses. Jennifer Sabas, who is the former chief of staff to the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, also had a trip paid for from the rail budget. She’s currently in the head of Move Oahu Forward, a nonprofit made up of pro-rail business and labor leaders.

‘We Know Nothing About Rail’

Former Honolulu City Councilman Breene Harimoto, who is an enthusiastic supporter of the rail project, says the city’s lack of experience with complex transit systems makes travel a necessary expenditure for politicians and public employees alike. Harimoto, who is now a state senator, used to sit on the City Council Transportation Committee and kept a close eye on the project.

The senator is a proponent of transit-oriented development, or TOD, which is the practice of tying transportation infrastructure to housing and business development. Since it’s a new idea for Honolulu, Harimoto says it’s important for city and HART officials to go to conferences, such as Rail-Volution and those hosted by the American Public Transportation Association.

Senator Breene Harimoto speaks during hearing on Hawaiian homelands.  24 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii Sen. Breene Harimoto went to Europe on his own fact-finding mission related to rail.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I’m a huge supporter of national conferences because here in Honolulu we’re so isolated and we know nothing about rail,” Harimoto said. “And it’s not just about transportation to and from destinations. Rail is much, much more than that.”

In 2011, he traveled to Copenhagen and Pittsburg, California, on the taxpayer’s dime for fact-finding missions related to Ansaldo. Honolulu is basing it’s driverless rail system on the Copenhagen Metro, and Ansaldo has a production facility in Pittsburg, where the rail cars will be assembled.

Records show Harimoto’s trips cost more than $8,500, which included travel expenses for an advisor to accompany him.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin, who was vice chair at the time, made the trip to California but not to Copenhagen. According to budget records, Martin’s total rail-related travel for him and an aide cost more than $2,500.

But Harimoto says he’s traveled more than what is reported in the rail expenditure data obtained by Civil Beat. He attended several rail-related conferences when he was a councilman, including one in Washington, D.C. that was sponsored by the Pacific Resource Partnership, a pro-development group backed by the Hawaii Carpenters Union. He also paid for other trips out of his office account or his own pocket.

* Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested Harimoto allowed PRP to pay for his trip to D.C. In fact, PRP paid the way for other council members and city officials but not Harimoto. 

“I truly believe that it really helped me understand the full and complete value of transit,” Harimoto said of his trips. “I’m still convinced that this is absolutely what we need to do for the future of Honolulu. It’s unfortunate that costs escalated and we’re not in a good financial situation. But I’m still convinced we need to do this.”

The rail project is facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall. State lawmakers are considering extending a half-percent surcharge of the general excise tax to help make up the difference. Without the funds, officials have said construction on the project would stall, costing millions of dollars, and that the city would be in danger of having to pay back federal grant money.

Name Amount Agency/Affiliation
Dan Grabauskas $56,842.88 HART
Toru Hamayasu $43,521.16 HART
Mufi Hannemann $20,054.63 City & County of Honolulu
Elizabeth Scanlon $19,589.31 HART
Brennon Morioka $14,814.32 HART
Robert Ko $13,735.57 HART
Ryan Benevedes $13,272.10 HART
Faith Miyamoto $10,775.85 HART
In-Tae Lee $10,072.52 HART
Terrance Ware $9,879.75 City & County of Honolulu
Carrie Okinaga $9,607.77 HART Board of Directors
Phyllis Kurio $9,337.13 HART
Karen Lee $8,894.55 HART
Claude Phillips $8,571.98 HART
Lukas Schroeder $8,054.55 HART
Alex Cross $7,649.55 HART
Todd Apo $7,577.79 Honolulu City Council
Roland Bueno $7,483.76 HART
Kirk Caldwell $7,197.08 City & County of Honolulu
Jon Nouchi $6,979.32 HART
William “Buzz” Hong $5,863.84 HART Board of Directors
May Whitten $5,823.11 City & County of Honolulu
Wayne Yoshioka $5,714.64 City & County of Honolulu
Eileen Aki Marceau $5,245.30 HART
Ron Baybayan $5,234.67 HART
Ivan Lui Kwan $5,146.44 HART Board
Joyce Oliveira $4,802.82 HART
Kelsey Dorogi $4,746.20 HART
Mike Formby $4,675.89 City & County of Honolulu
Ryan Tam $4,667.19 HART
Ikaika Anderson $4,537.05 Honolulu City Council
Frank Streed $4,439.95 City & County of Honolulu
Jason Chung $4,203.87 HART
Breene Harimoto $4,120.60 Honolulu City Council
Morris Atta $3,961.54 HART
Kevin Lima $3,826.26 City & County of Honolulu
Keslie Hui $3,710.65 HART Board of Directors
Gary Takeuchi $3,178.05 City & County of Honolulu
Frank Doyle $3,107.70 HART
Charles Bayne $3,026.80 HART

• Civil Beat Special Correspondent Bob Porterfield contributed to this report.

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