Honolulu’s rail agency has lost yet another top procurement officer as it seeks to award the multibillion-dollar transit project’s last major contract.

Paula Youngling resigned from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation on Oct. 14. She had logged about five years at the agency over two separate stints. Recently, Youngling took on duties as HART’S director of procurement after its former deputy executive director, Nicole Chapman, resigned in June.

Chapman — and now Youngling — left as HART pursues what officials say is an unprecedented change in procurement strategy among U.S. transit projects in order to award one of the state’s largest-ever public contracts.

Nonetheless, the agency says it’s already hired a replacement and that it’s confident there’ll be a smooth transition.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill train. 30 may 2017
Work continued on the rail project, including this elevated guideway in Waipahu, even as HART moved to line up a public-private partnership to pay for the last few miles. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HART hopes that by switching from a standard design-build strategy to a so-called public-private partnership, or “P3,” the firm that’s eventually hired will absorb most of the financial risk and help taxpayers avoid more painful cost overruns.

The P3 award will include an estimated $1.4 billion in rail construction work and a 30-year deal with the city to operate the lines. The bids are set to be opened in January.

Youngling did not give a specific reason for leaving in her resignation letter.

Her letter does hint, however, at significant differences between her and HART’s executive director, Andrew Robbins.

“One of my core beliefs is that the laws and regulations governing public procurement were established to ensure integrity, transparency, fairness, competition accountability, and economy in the purchase of goods, services and construction for the public we serve,” Youngling wrote in her letter to Robbins. “I believe that the great value that I brought was the ability to work seamlessly in these highly regulated environments and bring compliant creative procurement solutions.”

Youngling further wrote: “Since you deserve to have a Director of Procurement whose policy views are more aligned with your project visions, I believe it is time for me to resign from my position.”

She declined to comment further, and said she preferred to let the resignation letter stand for itself. Youngling now works at the state Department of Accounting and General Services as an administrative services officer.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins at HART Board Meeting.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins has led the agency through a major shift in procurement strategy, aimed at diverting financial risk away from taxpayers. Two procurement directors have left the agency in the past six months. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HART spokesman Bill Brennan said that a candidate to replace Youngling has already accepted the job and will start soon. The new procurement director previously worked at HART and is returning to the agency, but it’s not Chapman, Brennan said. The person’s name can’t be made public yet, he added.

This past summer, when Chapman left, Robbins said that “a project like this, it really tends to take over your life, and I think that’s what wore down on her.”

He touted having Youngling on staff to ensure there’d be a smooth transition. “We’re seamless,” he said in June.

Then, when Youngling left, HART sent a recent statement saying it’s “confident that the new Director’s knowledge of the Honolulu rail transit project and strong relationship with the City will allow for a smooth transition.”

Turnover has dogged HART for years, and it continues to concern the project’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.

Youngling first worked as HART’s director of procurement and contracts from 2011 to 2014. She returned to the agency as a deputy in March 2017.

Read Youngling’s resignation letter here:

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