Don Horner, former CEO for First Hawaiian Bank, is the first political casualty in Honolulu’s struggle to rein in cost increases on its $6.6 billion commuter rail project.
Until Monday, Horner was chairman of the board of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency charged with constructing the 20-mile rail line that will run from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
Horner resigned after a morning meeting with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who last month sent a letter to HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas saying he was worried that contract delays and underground utility problems could cost taxpayers more than expected and further delay the train’s opening date.
In his April 11 resignation letter, Horner told Caldwell that he would voluntarily step aside as a means to build a better working relationship among HART, the Caldwell administration and the Honolulu City Council.
“Too often in politics, the focus becomes shooting the messenger of unpleasant news rather than collaboratively working on solutions,” Horner wrote.
Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin called for Horner’s and Grabauskas’ resignations in a Thursday letter to the mayor. Martin was worried about comments from Horner and Grabauskas that indicated a recently approved extension of the general excise tax surcharge that pays for rail would not be enough to cover all the costs of the project.
Martin also referenced draft findings from a soon-to-be-released city audit that warned that more cost overruns and financial shortfalls could be on the way. The project was originally estimated to cost $5.3 billion.
Caldwell held a press conference Monday to announced that he had accepted Horner’s resignation and would be looking for a replacement. The mayor was flanked by former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and Department of Transportation Services Director Mike Formby, both of whom are HART board members.
All three said they have been disappointed by the lack of communication with HART officials, particularly as it relates to the cost of utility relocation and canceling the bid to build a parking garage at Pearl Highlands.
“The bottom line for me is I want real numbers, not sugar-coated numbers,” Caldwell said.
The mayor said he had planned to ask for Horner’s resignation had the chairman not offered it Monday. But Caldwell also acknowledged that Horner’s departure from the HART board won’t fix all the problems.
Caldwell did not offer an opinion on whether Grabauskas should be replaced as executive director and CEO of HART. He said that decision will be left up to the HART board, which is in the process of performing Grabauskas’ annual evaluation.
Grabauskas did not make himself available for an interview Monday.
Horner told reporters Monday that he still has full confidence in Grabauskas and that he hopes the HART board gives him a fair evaluation. He also downplayed the significance of his departure from the board.
The HART chairman, he said, is no more influential than another other member of the 10-person board. Horner said he never had more authority, responsibility or access to information than his colleagues.
He was essentially a spokesman for HART, he said, which made him the face of an unpopular project that has been losing community trust. His chairmanship also made him a political scapegoat.
“I do not want to be a distraction to this project,” Horner said of his resignation. “If it brings Chair Martin and Mayor Caldwell closer together that’s a good thing. And if it focuses back on the achievements of this project then that’s a good thing.”
Martin, who was unavailable for an interview Monday, is considering a run for Honolulu mayor. He and Caldwell are long-time political rivals. He said in a statement that he was disappointed that Caldwell did not accept any responsibility for the rail project’s troubles, and instead was blaming HART, the City Council and the Legislature.
“It’s hard to respect that kind of leadership,” Martin said. “This project belongs to all of us and now we have to fix it. Together. No one individual can be held responsible for rail’s current fiscal situation but more oversight and better teamwork is absolutely essential.”
Read Horner’s letters to Caldwell and Martin here: