A Honolulu rail board committee OK’d a spate of fresh change orders Thursday, adding as much as $39 million to fix the latest challenges facing the island’s complex transit project.

Should the full board approve those orders at a later date, they’ll address the contaminated groundwater that halted some construction near the airport and the project’s increasing materials prices.

They also include what rail officials hope is the last pot of money they’ll need to solve the years-long snafu of utility relocation along the rail guideway in the westside — a large and fundamental task that was neglected for years.

After Thursday’s Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board meeting, Andrew Robbins, the agency’s executive director, stressed that these latest cost increases are covered by the mega-project’s $8.14 billion construction budget, which has held steady for the past three years.

vHART Executive Director Andrew Robbins press conference at Alii Place.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins says rail remains on sound financial footing despite a flurry of change orders approved by a board oversight subcommittee Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HART, he added, is managing project risk more effectively than in years past, prior to its earlier budget crises.

Still, in prior years, Robbins’ predecessors would regularly note that the agency had the contingency dollars needed for various change orders — until the rail project swiftly climbed way over budget for reasons that are still being unpacked.

Rail’s next major budget test will likely come early next year, when bids for the remaining estimated $1.4 billion in construction are slated to be opened.

The Latest Change Order Laundry List

The board’s Project Oversight Committee approved up to $10 million to cover costs for Shimmick Traylor Granite, the firm building the latest stretch of guideway as far as Middle Street.

Last year, crews discovered groundwater at state-owned shaft sites at the airport contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE a cleaning solvent. Officials believe it was spilled there in the late 1940s, fouling parts of the aquifer.

The discovery prompted a work stoppage at airport lots A and J, and STG had to layoff 32 employees, rail officials said Thursday. The company further purchased equipment to filter the contaminated water. State health officials cleared STG to resume work there in April, about four months after it had stopped.

The isolated stoppage won’t cause any larger schedule delays, Robbins said Thursday.

“We didn’t do this, we didn’t cause this, somebody else did,” HART board member Hoyt Zia added, asking staff to look into who might be liable for the decades-old contamination on state property.

As construction heads into town, HART said it’s worked with the state Department of Health to flag other areas that may be contaminated. There’s always the chance, however, that workers could encounter more unexpected polluted sites.

HART Rail Guideway supports at the Airport.
These rail guideway columns have been erected at the airport near a groundwater contamination that was discovered and stopped some work earlier this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The committee also approved $3.5 million to cover increased materials costs for STG. Under the contract, rail officials say, the firm is entitled to be compensated for certain materials if their market price rises more than 10 percent from when the contract was signed back in 2016.

Those materials include concrete, cement, crushed stone, steel and rebar. On Thursday, East Area Construction Manager John Moore told board members it would’ve been impossible to buy all the materials when they were cheaper and store them on island.

The committee further approved up to $24.5 million for Hawaiian Electric to relocate some of the overhead lines that run along the guideway that’s already been built on the westside.

Last year, HART approved the purchase of specialized maintenance trucks that would allow HECO crews to access most of those power lines and avoid having to relocate them. The trucks are estimated to have saved some $130 million in relocation work, but some lines along Kamehameha Highway would still have to be moved.

On Thursday, HART Deputy Director for Design and Construction Frank Kosich told the committee he believes these latest millions should cover the rest of that westside work.

“I think this is it,” Kosich said.

Subpoenas Still In Play

Later Thursday, the full HART board discussed the federal subpoenas issued to the agency for the first time since they were served in February.

The discussion, with deputy Corporation Counsel Randall Ishikawa, lasted about 45 minutes behind closed doors. The board reported that it needed to continue the discussion at a later date.

Robbins said HART has provided some four terabytes of electronic data to comply with the first two subpoenas, which were aimed directly at the rail agency.

He declined to comment on the third subpoena, however, which was directed at the HART board and demands the agency provide unredacted minutes of its closed-door meetings.

While board members have said they’ll cooperate with federal authorities, they’ve also expressed doubts that they can fully comply with that last subpoena largely due to attorney-client privilege matters.

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