Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the hiring Wednesday of a Bay Area consultant with decades of transit experience to improve oversight of the city’s $6 billion commuter rail line.

Michael T. Burns is the former head of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California, where he was credited with pulling the agency out of debt and securing $900 million in federal funds to extend the Bay Area Rapid Transit system into San Jose.

Rail guideway columns along Farrington Highway as construction moves eastward. 21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Construction is well underway on Honolulu’s $6 billion rail project, which will be 20 miles long and include 21 stations.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Burns was also the CEO of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and has managed rail transit systems in Philadelphia and Boston.

“We brought Michael Burns on board because rail is our largest public works project in the history of the state, and we need to ensure to the public that public funds are spent responsibly,” Caldwell said in a press release. “With a project this size, it’s always good to have checks and balances in place.”

Caldwell added that Burns will bring a “fresh set of eyes” to the rail project to benefit the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is charged with building, operating and maintaining the 20-mile system.

Michael T. Burns

Michael T. Burns has a long history of running transit agencies on the mainland.


Burns’ hire comes after Caldwell and HART officials were battered in the Legislature for asking for more general excise tax revenue to help cover a projected $910 million shortfall. Lawmakers had serious concerns about how the project was being managed and the perceived lack of transparency over its finances.

Burns will work under a one-year contract worth $95,000 that will be paid out of the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services budget. His annual salary at the Santa Clara VTA when he retired in 2013 was nearly $300,000.

Burns is expected to review the rail project and provide quarterly reports that will be available to the public. According to KHON2, he will not have any decision-making authority.

“My work scope here is a collaborative, cooperative effort with HART; with the HART staff, with the city and really with all of the stakeholders,” Burns said. “The objective is to try to make this the best project that it can be.”

HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but he told Civil Beat in an email that he “welcome(s) the input” and looks forward to working with Burns.

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