Michael Formby, the acting director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, started his career with the federal government as an attorney overseeing contracts for the military — purchasing aircraft for NATO, for instance.

Three decades later, he’s likely heading back to federal service, this time as chief of staff for Colleen Hanabusa, heavily favored to win the congressional seat that became vacant with the death of U.S. Rep. Mark Takai in July.

In between, Formby worked in private practice in maritime law, then served in state and city government before temporarily taking on the job as HART’s executive director with the resignation of Dan Grabauskas in August.

Michael Formby City of Honolulu . 16 may 2016.
Michael Formby is likely headed back to federal service. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Formby, who was honored by the Honolulu City Council on Wednesday for his tenure as the city’s transportation director, sees a certain symmetry to returning where he started.

“It’s full circle,” he said.

At the same time, he’s been warned to prepare for the treacherous waters of the fiercely partisan U.S. Capitol.

Formby, who describes his style as collaborative and trusting, said, “I’ll learn very quickly that I need to adapt.”

Perhaps Formby’s recent experience at HART will help. As the city’s transportation director, he served on the HART board alongside Hanabusa. After Grabauskas and HART agreed to part ways, Formby stepped down from the board to act temporarily as executive director.

Honolulu’s controversial 20-mile, 21-station rail project, from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center, has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. It’s now expected to cost $8.6 billion and open for business in December 2025. When the city signed an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration in 2012, the project was supposed to cost only $5.2 billion and start running trains in 2019.

Formby and Hanabusa were seen as bringing a different style to the board, pushing for staff to keep members informed about significant developments and advocating greater transparency.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle asked Formby to leave private practice to join the state Department of Transportation in 2007 to help sort out problems with the proposed inter-island Hawaii Superferry, which went out of business in 2009.

In 2011, he went back to private practice with the law firm Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel. Future Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell worked in the same building. Formby said he did not know Caldwell very well, but ran into him often in the elevator, where Caldwell would ask him if he missed public service.

In fact, he did. When Caldwell became mayor, he asked Formby to serve as Honolulu’s transportation director.

Formby’s latest move had been rumored for months. He said he and Hanabusa had decided to hold off announcing it until after she was elected to avoid being presumptuous. But when Caldwell revealed Formby’s likely future job at a going-away party Tuesday, word got out.

Assuming Hanabusa wins a special election to finish Takai’s term and another election (they’re both on Tuesday’s ballot) to serve a new two-year term, Formby said their first order of business will be getting her on committees best positioned to help Hawaii. With two earlier terms under her belt, Hanabusa would have more seniority than a freshman, but getting the right assignments will require some schmoozing, he said.

Formby said he plans to keep his house in Honolulu and expects to return often.

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