In 2012, Honolulu rail officials awarded a nearly $44 million contract to the global firm AECOM. Its scope was to design the last stretch of guideway into town and the utility relocations needed to build that elevated track.

Fast forward nearly eight years: The guideway design work that AECOM was hired to do — and had started doing — has since been removed and transferred to rail’s last remaining major construction contract, which has yet to be awarded

But instead of a decrease in cost, AECOM’s contract is getting more expensive. 

On Thursday, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board members gave their initial approval to the design deal’s latest change order, a $9.2 million increase. That brings the contract’s total cost to at least $67 million.

The columns used to support the rail guideway have nearly reached Middle Street. HART is scrambling to get utilities out of the way for the future construction east of Middle Street, heading into town.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The move comes as HART scrambles to catch up on the utility relocation that AECOM is still designing. The effort to get those power, sewer and communication lines out of the way is months behind schedule — but it’s also critical to keep rail construction moving, officials say.

Frank Kosich, HART’s director for engineering and construction, told the board that the change order was needed to extend the contract through July 2023. He also briefed the HART Project Oversight Committee on a lengthy history of delays and revisions to the AECOM contract. 

It’s only the latest contract on the more than $9 billion project to have costs rise substantially. Last month, HART officials said they expect the actual relocating of the utilities will cost at least $135 million more than they had most recently expected.

“It doesn’t make us all collectively look very good,” Wes Frysztacki, the city’s transportation services director and a HART board member, said of the AECOM costs. “It looks like we’ve had a lot of false starts and change of direction.”

Some of the revisions that have added costs to the AECOM design contract actually reduced the amount of future construction work, Kosich said. That includes avoiding having to relocate a 42-inch water main under Dillingham Boulevard that’s critical to delivering water into town.

“In deletion of scope, we believe we’ve saved a substantial amount of money in construction,” Kosich said.

He didn’t have a breakdown Thursday for how much of AECOM’s original $44 million was for guideway design versus utility relocation design.

The guideway design work that it did complete “is not just sitting on a shelf somewhere,” HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins told the board. Instead, it’s available to the bidders vying for rail’s last major construction contract, which is expected to be part of a larger public-private partnership to complete and run the transit line.

HART Board member Wes Frysztacki

HART board member Wes Frysztacki on the cost increases to AECOM’s design contract: “It doesn’t make us all collectively look very good.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“They can refine it, they can change it or they can use it,” Robbins said. 

In 2015, the rail leaders who predated Robbins acknowledged that HART had paid AECOM and other firms at least $101.2 million on designs to build the line’s eastern half that would be partially used at best.

That’s because the local rail agency opted to change its approach to construction after awarding those design contracts. Going forward, the private firms building rail also must complete the bulk of the design work too, under what’s called a design-build contract.

Previously, HART had planned to build the line with separate design and construction contracts. Project officials have actually changed course three times since rail’s inception, and the reason for so much back-and-forth has never been entirely clear.

The most recent switch to design-build was to increase competition and attract more bidders, according to HART spokesman Bill Brennan.

“We’ve got to be very careful because it’s going to appear that we paid two contractors to kind of do the same thing in this area,” Dean Hazama, a recent state-appointed HART board member, said at Thursday’s meeting. 

“I know there’s some refinements that probably the P3 contractor is going to do with the design, but these are two separate contracts, and if you put identical requirements in there I think it’s going to raise some flags.”

HART’s full board is expected to take up the $9.2 million change for final approval at an upcoming meeting.

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