The board overseeing Honolulu rail is poised to replace its latest executive director, three years after he was hired to help reform the long-troubled transit project and usher it to completion.

Andrew Robbins, a longtime rail-project official in the private sector, took over at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation in September 2017 after a nearly year-long search by the board. On Thursday, those board members will discuss behind closed doors their plans to let Robbins go once his contract expires at the end of the year.

The move to jettison yet another top executive at HART follows the agency’s frustrating, years-long struggle to award the last major construction contract and get the 20-mile rail line to Ala Moana Center.

Under Robbins, the agency pursued a novel procurement approach to get that final contract signed — a public-private partnership, or “P3.” But two years after HART officially launched that effort there’s still no P3 deal in sight.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins during press conference at Alii Place 2nd subpoena.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins, seen during a press conference at Alii Place in 2019, may be out of a job when his contract expires.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s been hampered by a year’s worth of delays, and one of the private companies seeking the P3 award recently told investors that it submitted a more than $2 billion bid. HART only budgeted around $1.4 billion to finish the last four miles.

Board members on Thursday are slated to discuss alternative delivery methods to get that construction work done, in addition to replacing Robbins.

His three-year contract includes a $317,000 annual salary, a $55,000 annual housing allowance and a $7,200 transportation allowance. It allowed for an annual performance bonus of up to 3.5 % of his salary, although Robbins was never awarded that.

The board never officially completed its annual review of Robbins’ job performance for 2019, although progress on a P3 deal was to weigh heavily into that evaluation.

The board’s human resources committee initiated its latest review of Robbins’ contract on Aug. 27. That was the same date HART set as its latest target to award the P3.

Those HR discussions, led by committee chair Lynn McCrory, continued behind closed doors during the past few weeks without any status reported out to the public. Board members did not respond to requests for more detail on what they were reviewing in regards to Robbins’ contract.

HART rail construction at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport during COVID-19 pandemic. September 18, 2020

Rail construction continues to snake toward Honolulu’s urban core. HART has struggled for years to award the last major construction contract to finish the full 20-mile line.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Robbins did not respond to a request for comment Monday left with HART’s spokesman, Bill Brennan.

However, Honolulu Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann joined other prominent city, state, union and construction leaders to support Robbins in written testimony.

Robbins should continue to lead HART, they said, because he managed to get the troubled project’s recovery plan approved by the Federal Transit Administration, and he’s helped keep construction work moving around the airport, their joint letter stated.

“All this work has meant jobs for our island people. There are both direct and indirect jobs related to the project,” the letter says. “Especially in this time of a global pandemic, keeping the project going is providing a needed boost to our local economy as so many other sectors are hurting.”

The letter further touted rail’s budget remaining “stable” during his tenure, although the project’s cost estimates have gradually crept up in recent months. That one of the P3 bidders’ prices exceeded HART estimates by more than $600 million indicates that rail’s costs could again increase substantially.

Robbins has also pressed to get rail’s first 10 miles operational, despite strong concerns from the project’s federal partners and Mayor Kirk Caldwell. They wanted Robbins and HART to focus the bulk of its efforts on securing the P3 contract instead. Caldwell said that the FTA demanded to him in private meetings that the city cease “overpromising and underdelivering” on rail.

In January, when Robbins held a press conference to announce that rail would be ready to ride by the end of the year, Caldwell was notably absent. Hannemann, however, attended the event at Leeward Community College. The COVID-19 pandemic has since delayed that opening to next year.

Robbins’ main predecessor, Daniel Grabauskas, departed HART in 2016 when construction costs skyrocketed in a matter of months from $6 billion to more than $8 billion. The board then hired Krishniah Murthy as interim director in late 2016 before hiring Robbins the following summer.

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