Honolulu rail enters its latest foray into the unknown this week as the City Council takes up a proposal that might radically shake up who oversees construction of the state’s largest-ever public works project.

Council chairman Ikaika Anderson’s Resolution 19-170 would have voters decide in 2020 whether to disband the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation years early, handing control of rail construction over to the Department of Transportation Services instead.

His proposal follows years of costly challenges and missteps. It lands amid yet another pivotal moment for rail.

The mega-project’s budget has nearly doubled from more than $5 billion to more than $9 billion and seen its completion schedule delayed about seven years. Audits have chronicled a history of troubling management. That was all before it found itself ensnared in a federal criminal investigation.

Nonetheless, HART leadership last week warned that if the council approves its chairman’s resolution, the ensuing uncertainty hanging over rail’s governance would only make things worse.

Honolulu City Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson1. 1 june 2016.
Honolulu City Council chairman Ikaika Anderson at a meeting in 2016. Anderson has proposed dissolving HART ahead of schedule, before the rail project is completed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As many as three different private groups (the exact number isn’t disclosed under local procurement law) are vying to build the final, trickiest stretch of rail into town as part of a public-private partnership. They’re already spending millions of dollars, asking hundreds of questions and meeting in person with HART officials, agency Executive Director Andy Robbins said Friday.

As things stand, HART is slated to dissolve once the 20-mile, 21-station line is finished and no extensions loom. But any uncertainty over whether DTS will soon be overseeing construction creates more risk — and risk tends to drive up bid prices, Robbins said Friday.

“I know part of the checklist of risks is … understanding who your customer is. Do they pay? What’s their track record?” Robbins told the HART board’s Executive Matters Committee, before its three members approved their own resolution opposing Anderson’s.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that an element like this introduces an element of risk that could potentially affect the procurement process, and I think that’s something that we do legitimately have to be concerned about,” Robbins said.

Higher-than-expected bid prices could have a domino effect that spurs even more trouble for rail. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars still hinge on the price of those bids and whether they come in on the latest $8.3 billion construction budget.

Federal Transit Administration officials have already made clear they won’t release rail’s remaining $744 million until and unless they’re comfortable with HART’s recovery plan and the bids come in safely on budget.

They’re watching closely what happens next.

“They read this resolution with a yellow highlighter. They told me that,” Robbins said Friday.

Voters wouldn’t decide whether to kill HART early until November 2020. The FTA isn’t inclined to wait that long to approve rail’s recovery plan, Robbins said of his recent conversations with federal officials.

“But, you know, we did discuss the fact that they’re not going to start to release the funding until they see the bid results.”

A Debate Over Transparency

HART’s 14-member volunteer board has seen heavy turnover in its eight years of existence. Anderson’s proposed resolution states that the board “has not provided the anticipated accountability.”

The council chairman, who’s long been a staunch supporter of rail, declined a request Friday for an interview. However, he did send a statement in which he said HART’s “tainted reputation is the result of limited transparency and poor business practices.”

Critics have persistently called to halt the transit line at Middle Street. More fiscal responsibility, management and effectiveness will be needed if the city’s to get the elevated route past that point and all the way to Ala Moana Center, Anderson’s resolution states.

State audits earlier this year found that HART ignored repeated warnings about cost and schedule and that it had lacked internal controls to keep those in check. The agency withheld the true costs associated with the project from public view, the state auditor found, and in some cases the board itself was kept in the dark.

Notably, however, the bulk of those reports largely focused on HART’s management through 2016. The agency has seen plenty of turnover among its managers and top deputies, too.

HART rail Kamehameha Hwy Radford Pearl Harbor area.
Honolulu rail columns run along Kamehameha Highway, part of the latest major construction contract between Aloha Stadium and Middle Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Robbins, who joined the rail agency in September 2017, has repeatedly asserted that it’s a new day at HART, with more robust internal cost controls and risk management.

“Yes, of course the project had major difficulties … but we’ve been able to hold the budget and the schedule for going on three years now,” he said Friday.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to face problems on a mega project like this,” he said.  The difference, he said, was in how they were managing the situation.

Anderson’s statement notes that the city’s former city auditor, Edwin Young, once called out HART as unprofessional. That occurred in 2016, however, under HART’s former executive director, Dan Grabauskas, who clashed with the city’s elected leaders as rail problems mounted.

HART board member Glenn Nohara, a retired construction executive, said that despite all the previous problems on his board’s watch their governance does provide useful transparency.

A host of construction snafus, including the recent problems with fire-safety testing of the rail cars and faulty station canopy arms, all came to light in the board’s public meetings, he noted.

It’s not clear how such construction issues would surface if placed under the direct control of the city’s Transportation Services Department director.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins at HART Board Meeting.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins says the uncertainty generated by a proposed resolution to disband his agency could do more harm than good. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“DTS can’t even fix the Handi-Van and they’ve been trying that for 16 years,” Barbra Armentrout, a longtime fixture at local government meetings, told the HART board members Friday. “I think it’s not the time to disband the authority. I believe the cons will outweigh the pros.”

A key reason for forming HART in 2011 was to keep construction of the project at arm’s length from the city’s political leadership. Anderson’s resolution asserts that’s also kept it free of the supervision needed.

If voters opt to end HART, the city would take over the project under a new mayor and a slate of new City Council members, HART board chairman Damien Kim noted Friday.

Kim announced his resignation from the board earlier this summer, but he’s stayed on as the council still hasn’t announced a replacement for him.

The City Council is expected to take up Resolution 19-170 at its meeting Wednesday.

“I believe it’s time for us to let the public decide whether HART lives or dies,” Anderson said in his statement.

Chris Chung, a member of the Ala Moana/Kakaako Neighborhood Board’s Action Committee, said he plans to testify against the idea.

“It’s like trying to replace a jet fighter pilot flying at full speed, coming for a landing in mid-flight,” Chung said Friday. “Not even the finest air force in the world, the U.S. Air Force, would attempt this.”

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