The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board has hired a veteran transit official as its interim director in hopes that his year-long tenure will help turn around the troubled rail project.

The board announced the hiring of Krishniah Murthy, 73, who retired about two years ago as executive director for transit project delivery at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or LA Metro. He starts his new job Dec. 5.

Murthy, approved unanimously by the board Thursday morning, will be paid $400,000 for his year as interim director while HART continues to search for a permanent director. In addition, he will be paid for housing, transportation and relocation expenses.

He also will be eligible for a 10 percent bonus if he meets certain goals. The agreement allows the HART board to dismiss him at will.

Krishniah Murthy starts his job as interim director of the Honolulu rail project Dec. 5.
Krishniah Murthy starts his job as interim director of the Honolulu rail project Dec. 5. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Murthy has contacts in the Federal Transit Administration, which has been overseeing the rail recovery plan.

“He knows a number of key players in the industry,” said board member Colbert Matsumoto, who led a group that searched for an interim director. Matsumoto said it was challenging to find a highly qualified candidate for a position scheduled to last only one year.

Murthy said he would not dwell on the over-budget project’s past troubles.

“My first goal is to get the project going in the right direction.” — Krishniah Murthy

“That would be a waste of time,” he said.

He said he believes in the project’s potential to promote development in west Oahu and make life easier for tourists and residents.

“My first goal is to get the project going in the right direction,” he said.

The transit industry across the U.S. is closely watching Honolulu’s rail project, he said. There are fears that the FTA might cite its failure to justify rejection of other rail projects. Having spent his entire career in transit, he said he considers it a professional challenge to make Honolulu’s rail project a success.

He said that it was too early to say whether he would ask to be considered for the permanent director spot. One of his first tasks, he said, would be to assess the technical capabilities of the HART staff and consultants and the project’s management structure. He also plans to take a fresh look at technical solutions to some of the project’s challenges.

For the past two years, Murthy has been working as a private consultant. At LA Metro, he led a design and construction management group responsible for the delivery of about $9 billion of rail and highway transit projects, according to his resume.

Before joining LA Metro in 2007, he worked for more than 30 years for Parsons Brinckerhoff on projects around the world, including London, Singapore, Trinidad and India.

The previous HART director, Dan Grabauskas, agreed to part ways with authority in August as it looked to move beyond a contentious period in which the project went severely over-budget and its opening date was pushed further into the future.

Grabauskas, who had been appointed in March 2012, received total yearly compensation of $299,250, which included housing and transportation allowances.

He was replaced temporarily by Mike Formby, who as Honolulu’s director of transportation had been a member of the HART board. Formby stepped down from the board to act as executive director.

Board chair Colleen Hanabusa appointed Matsumoto, a prominent businessman and attorney, to lead a team to look for a permanent replacement for Grabauskas. Hanabusa, expected to win the Nov. 8 election as the Democratic candidate for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, also is leaving the board.

Murthy will have his hands full trying to contain costs and keep the project on track.

In September, HART revealed that its new estimate for the 21-station, 20-mile line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center had shot up to $8.6 billion, an increase of $300 million from the most recent official estimate. That leaves a funding gap of about $1.8 billion.

The opening date was also pushed back from 2024 to December 2025.

When the city signed an agreement with the FTA in 2012, the project was supposed to cost only $5.2 billion and be open for business in 2019.

Given the possibility that the city didn’t have the money to complete the agreed-upon project, the FTA asked for a recovery plan by the end of the year. HART and city officials have asked the FTA for more time to allow them to work with legislators to find enough money to complete the rail line as envisioned.

In the meantime, HART submitted an interim plan at the end of September outlining two broad strategies: raising the money to build the project as intended, or scaling it back, but not so much that the FTA would withdraw its $1.55 billion contribution.

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