The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an expansive probe into the handling of contracts and change orders used to build Honolulu’s rail transit system, a multibillion-dollar project whose estimated price tag has nearly doubled since 2014, a federal grand jury subpoena shows.

The Feb. 8 order, which Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials received Monday, will require the local rail agency to provide the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Honolulu with at least 30,000 pages of documentation on design, planning and construction work.

HART must also provide its correspondences with the Federal Transit Administration as the two agencies negotiated the project’s 2012 federal funding deal for $1.55 billion dollars.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins press conference at Alii Place wide.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins briefs reporters on the federal investigation of the rail project Friday at Alii Place. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“All we know is we’re being directed to provide documents. And we’re being directed to provide a lot of documents. And we can comply with that,” HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins said at a press conference Friday, where agency staff distributed copies of the subpoena one day after acknowledging they’d received it.

“Any time you run into a large, complicated infrastructure project, wherever it is in the world, there’s usually bumps in the road,” Robbins said.

The order, directed to the rail agency as a whole, was issued by U.S. Attorney Kenji Price and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Tong, a veteran of the Honolulu U.S. Attorney’s Office.

HART has until March 7 to submit the documents.

Robbins, who joined the agency in 2017, said he’s not aware of any other groups or individuals associated with the rail project who have received a subpoena. Nor does he know the focus of the criminal investigation into Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project, now estimated to cost as much as $9.2 billion with financing.

Amid Probe, Federal Dollars In Limbo

The grand jury order’s timing raises questions about whether the city will now get the FTA approvals needed to receive rail’s remaining $744 million in federal dollars — funding that’s critical if the transit line is to make it all the way to Ala Moana Center. HART’s latest version of a recovery plan for the project, submitted in November, still hasn’t been approved.

On Friday, Robbins said the FTA’s progress had been stymied by last month’s federal shutdown. He now hopes the plan will be approved by April. The FTA, Robbins said, has signaled that it’s pleased with the plan.

That was before HART received the subpoena this week, however.

When Robbins talked to FTA officials Thursday, they said that the agency’s attorneys and acting administrator would be informed.

The FTA, meanwhile has not responded to questions sent to its Washington, D.C., office on how the federal subpoena might affect its decision on whether to approve Honolulu’s recovery plan.

The order also lands as HART works to secure a deal with a private-sector partner to help finish rail’s remaining $1.4 billion in construction and run the system once it’s completed.

None of the potential partners interested in that contract have reached out to HART since news of the federal subpoena broke Thursday, Robbins said.

HART rail progresses near the Aloha Stadium Arizona Memorial.
Construction of rail’s elevated guideway near Aloha Stadium this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

His staff, meanwhile, has already started compiling the paperwork. Many of those documents are the same ones they already gathered for the state auditor’s office, which has issued two reports highly critical of HART’s management of the project. Two more reports in the state auditor’s series are slated to be released in the coming weeks.

In January, as the audit reports trickled out, HART board member Ember Shinn openly worried about morale among HART staff.

“They face so much criticism, so much negative press, that I think they’re demoralized,” Shinn said at the board’s January meeting. “It’s got to be the worst place to work, and I give a shoutout to the employees.”

Robbins said Friday that the HART staff is doing OK.

“I was able to make the rounds in the office today, and I’m getting the thumbs up from our staff,” Robbins said. “People are still motivated. Their heads are still high, and they intend to deliver this project.”

Read the grand jury subpoena here:

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