The agency overseeing Honolulu rail construction lost track of an agreement to reimburse the University of Hawaii for its rail-related costs, prompting the project’s board of directors to take steps Tuesday to budget for those expenses.

Under the deal, signed in 2014, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation agreed to cover as much as $600,000 for UH to “review, evaluate” and investigate plans to use university-owned property for rail.

The 20-mile, 21-station project is slated to run along the campuses of UH West Oahu, Leeward Community College, UH Manoa’s Urban Gardens in Pearl City and Honolulu Community College.

But the memorandum of understanding later “slipped through the cracks” at HART, as board member Terrence Lee described it during Tuesday’s Project Oversight Committee meeting. It had been signed under HART’s former executive director, Dan Grabauskas, who left the project in 2016.

HART Rail Operations Center Waipahu HS aerial2.
Oahu’s future rail line cuts across numerous University of Hawaii properties, including the Leeward Community College campus in Waipahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

UH reminded the agency of the agreement about six months ago when it reported about $250,000 in rail-related expenses so far, according to Nicole Chapman, HART’s director of procurement and contracts.

“This is an unusual situation,” Chapman told the oversight committee Tuesday as it weighed approval of the costs. “This came as a surprise.”

Grabauskas’ eventual successor, Andrew Robbins, described the glitch as a “process issue” because in previous years not all of HART’s contracts went to Chapman’s desk for review.

The estimated $9.19 billion transit line is Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project, and the HART board has regularly approved multimillion-dollar change orders that far exceed these six-figure costs from UH.

But HART has also struggled with organizational problems in recent years, and turnover among top officials has been rampant during the height of construction. Audits and industry peer reviews have flagged those issues. HART’s latest leadership has touted internal reforms that they say make the agency run better.

Robbins didn’t directly blame Grabauskas for the latest development Tuesday, but he did point to gaps in the system at HART during Grabauskas’ tenure.

HART Andrew Robbins speaks during Kapolei Hale meeting.
HART Executive Director Andy Robbins called the agency’s losing track of its UH deal a “process issue.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Starting with (former interim Executive Director Krishniah) Murthy, when he was here, and I picked it up, is this governance that we’re talking about,” Robbins said Tuesday. “We have a process now.”

Rail’s unallocated contingency budget, which Robbins put at $88 million, will cover the UH expenses. That contingency is set aside for unforeseen problems.

Robbins and Chapman said that going forward HART shouldn’t lose track of any more contracts or agreements now that all contracts go through Chapman’s office.

But it’s unclear whether any slipped through the cracks prior to that reform.

“If it’s out there, then I don’t know about it,” Chapman said Tuesday.

Added Robbins, “We’ve done a really thorough job of scrubbing the entire project to figure it out. But that doesn’t mean there might not be some unknowns.”

The full board will take up the UH expenses for final approval at its next meeting, Robbins said.

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