Last month the Honolulu rail project’s top executive, Andrew Robbins, traveled to San Francisco to hand-deliver the latest draft of the transit project’s recovery plan — the last version he hopes he’ll ever have to submit.

The plan, years in the making, aims to assure the Federal Transit Administration that despite the troubles of recent years, rail is back on solid financial footing and managed by a capable, experienced staff.

Among those highlighted was Nicole Chapman, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s deputy executive director of procurement, contracts and construction claims.

“Ms. Chapman has been with HART for five years and has over 20 years’ experience in procurement and contracts,” the plan stated. “Ms. Chapman’s local knowledge relating to construction contract procurement and interpretation of agreement language adds to HART’s ability to manage contracts.”

Not long after Robbins’ FTA delivery, however, Chapman was gone.

She became the latest in a string of top deputies and board members to resign from Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project. For years, amid intense public scrutiny, the agency has struggled to retain institutional knowledge across all the moving parts that comprise local rail construction.

HART Rail Guideway columns near Eliot Street and Daniel Inouye International Airport.

Rail guideway columns, such as these near the airport, are moving closer to downtown as HART aims to build the final 4-mile stretch with a private partner.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“A project like this, it really tends to take over your life, and I think that’s what wore down on her,” Robbins said.

HART also struggles to pay competitive salaries and provide long-term job security beyond an annual “professional services” contract to many of its city employees, such as Chapman, even as it embeds a cadre of high-priced consultants within the agency.

With Chapman’s exit, HART lacks a deputy executive director overseeing procurement just as it pursues a radical procurement change that officials say is unprecedented among U.S. transit projects.

By switching mid-construction to a so-called public private partnership, or “P3,” HART and the city hope to avoid the budget and schedule crises of the past while building the rail line’s most difficult stretch to Ala Moana.

Robbins says Chapman’s departure shouldn’t affect that progress.

Paula Youngling, who served as the HART’s director of procurement and contracts through 2014 and then returned to the agency in 2017, will help handle the duties while a permanent replacement is sought.

“We’re seamless,” Robbins said, adding that despite all the turnover, the agency has a deep bench in multiple departments.

‘I Think They’re Demoralized’

Turnover has dogged HART for years.

Since 2015 the agency has been led by four different executive directors, including Robbins. It’s seen three different deputy directors for design and construction. It’s currently looking to hire its third chief financial officer in that time frame after the previous two resigned.

Five deputy directors for right-of-way and property acquisition have left the project since 2015, which is frustrating to private landowners along the route.

At least 20 directors, managers or prominent personnel have left since 2015.

The revolving door has worried the rail’s federal partners.

“HART continues to experience turnover in critical staff positions,” the independent oversight contractor, Hill International, reported to the FTA in April. It’s flagged the issue in previous reports as well.

“Additionally, HART is evaluating the evolving needs for staffing a P3 delivery for the remaining contracts versus the originally anticipated Design-Build contracting,” Hill added in its report, weeks before Chapman left.

HART Board Member Ember Shinn questions the Mayor at Kapolei Hale.

Ember Shinn will leave the HART board this summer, along with its chairman, Damien Kim.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Amid the intense scrutiny and criticism, HART board members have openly worried about morale among the agency’s approximately 135 staff members.

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

Shinn quipped at the time, “my friends tell me to get off the board because it’s going to go down and get out while you can.”

Soon, she will. Shinn opted not to be reappointed this summer.

“Most of us have lives and HART is a demanding board to be on,” Shinn said Wednesday. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a very complicated project.”

Also leaving is the volunteer board’s chairman and its last original member, Damien Kim. Since 2011, at least 17 members have vacated the board, which was originally a 10-member group that later expanded to 14 seats.

“The HART board is building a rail system that’s never been done before,” Shinn said. “The time commitment was unbelievable.”

‘A Sprinter’s Pace’

Robbins has pointed to new staff members with decades of transit experience, such as Senior Project Officer Robert Good, to help see rail through and replace any lost knowledge.

“Our turnover is actually in the normal range,” Robbins said. “Maybe high end of normal, but still normal.”

HART provided a comparison of its turnover rate with the overall rates across three categories reported in recent months to the U.S. Department of Labor: construction, transportation and state and local government.

HART reported a lower average monthly rate of separation from its workforce — 1.38 percent — than any of those sectors.

But the agency doesn’t neatly fit into any of those categories. Further, it’s difficult to say how well it compares to other transportation projects, whose staff and operations are organized differently.

Nicole Chapman, flanked by HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins, addresses the rail board in September 2018. Chapman resigned as a senior officer overseeing procurement in June.

Olelo Community Media

What is certain is that in Honolulu there’s been a nearly complete overhaul of rail leadership. Anyone who attended a board meeting six years ago would not recognize current board members or senior leadership.

“It’s really been like a sprinter’s pace for the entire time,” former HART deputy director Brennon Morioka said in 2017 upon leaving the project after 4 ½ years to take a job at Hawaiian Electric Co.

Krishniah Murthy, HART’s former interim executive director who stayed two more years as a senior advisor, also left the agency last week to spend more time with his family in Southern California.

Meanwhile, the complex and uncertain shift to “P3” has seen several months of delays. HART recently narrowed the field of prospective private partners to three finalists. It hopes to award the contract early next year.

Prior to joining HART, Nicole Chapman had worked on the rail project for several years in the city’s Corporation Counsel office.

“It’s a great loss. I know Andy felt the same way,” Shinn said of Chapman’s departure. “It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle to keep good people.

“Her loss of institutional knowledge is going to be difficult to replace.”

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