Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Andrew Robbins will keep his job, for now. At least three agency board members on Thursday opposed the effort to replace him, which was enough to stop it.
It’s not clear what happens once Robbins’ contract expires at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to preside over a multibillion-dollar megaproject whose schedule and budget woes are only getting worse. Efforts to relocate utilities along Dillingham Boulevard have stalled, officials managing the project say, due to an impasse between HART and the city’s planning department over the rail agency’s latest designs for that work.
That impasse will mean further “substantial” cost and schedule impacts to a rail project that has already seen a heavy share of cost increases.
Rail officials wouldn’t give a dollar amount Thursday. They said it depends on what approach they eventually use to get the Dillingham utility work done. However, it’s sure to delay that work by at least nine months and possibly as much as four years, they said.
It’s further not clear how these design snafus will impact the project’s overall completion date, which is now officially slated for late 2026. But Robbins has previously stressed that getting the utility work out of the way is critical for whomever is to build rail’s elevated pathway into town.
HART this summer tried to get design variances from the city in 13 different spots along the crowded corridor to make those designs work. But the Department of Planning and Permitting said it couldn’t approve them.
“We’ve had to hold firm to full drawings and now you’re finding you can’t do it without a variance,” DPP Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa, said at Thursday’s HART board meeting.
HART asked DPP to review those plans this summer “and we tried and it wasn’t working,” she said.
The problem, according to City Center Utility Relocation Project Manager Marc Gravel, is that there are 13 “pinch points” along Dillingham where it’s too narrow to fit all the various utility lines underground, which is why the rail agency sought the variances.
Sokugawa said that private builders and even other public agencies have to present them with full plans before they receive DPP approval. Sokugawa is a HART board member based on her role as DPP director.
Now, HART is considering solutions that include more property acquisition along Dillingham for the space needed to put lines underground. The agency might also submit a design that shifts the guideway slightly mauka in the roadway next to Honolulu Community College to allow for some of the electrical lines to remain overhead.
Gravel also outlined what he described as an unlikely solution to acquire property along the full mauka length of Dillingham.
Meanwhile, the Nan Inc. work crews relocating utilities along Dillingham will stop and reopen the road to the public in early November.
Work won’t resume there, rail officials said, until they’ve finally figured out how to relocate all of the utilities across all of Dillingham, not just in piecemeal areas.
Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, during the discussion to replace Robbins, board member Glenn Nohara said that HART has changed its approach to the utility relocation designs multiple times since August 2018, contributing to the current predicament.
During testimony late last year, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell blasted HART for moving too slowly on the utility relocation. He implored the board “to make sure that you’re on HART’s ass, to make sure that they’re doing what they need to do in a timely way.”
Nohara further said HART hasn’t been as transparent as it should be in providing timely, updated budget numbers.
“We don’t really know where we stand within our budget,” he said. “We are not taking a proactive approach to determine our true financial and schedule duration, and we keep making what-if scenarios and excuses and not presenting this information.”
The board’s discussion was notable because its members opted to conduct it and debate in an open public session. Typically, they’ve held such discussions behind closed doors.
Terrence Lee, the current board’s longest serving member, said he “lost a lot of sleep” over whether to keep Robbins at the helm. He changed his mind, and decided to support Robbins, after initially supporting the Human Resources Committee’s recommendation to replace him.
“I believe that given the circumstances that we’re in, making a change in the CEO at this point in time is imprudent. It injects another element of uncertainty that we cannot afford,” Lee said.
In 2016, one of Robbins’ predecessors, Daniel Grabauskas, resigned under a mutual agreement with the board as costs spiked that year.
Lee added that he recently spoke with both House Speaker Scott Saiki and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke about Robbins. The two are among the most powerful members of the Legislature, and they’d be key players in any future requests for more state funding on a transit project currently estimated to cost more than $9 billion.
Both Luke and Saiki supported retaining Robbins, Lee said. Kika Bukoski and Joseph Uno, the two newest members of the HART board, agreed with Lee.
Board member Hoyt Zia disagreed, however.
“Our concern and our main focus is on making sure the project continues and is done in the best way possible,” he said in arguing to replace Robbins. It’s based on what board members have seen over three years — not anyone else, he said.
“The evaluations speak for themselves,” he said, although no evaluation has been made public for Robbins’ job performance last year.
Zia chaired the HR committee last year before Lynn McCrory took over that post on the volunteer board. She said a lot of issues were raised in the committee’s recent closed-door meetings about Robbins that “were not positive but were negative.”
Robbins’ three-year contract expires at the end of the year. Board members opted Thursday not to form a search committee for a replacement.
But it remains unclear how long Robbins would stay in the job past that expiration, if at all.
“I appreciate and respect the authority, discussion and decision of the HART Board today on my employment contract. I am overwhelmed by the support I received from elected officials, and labor, business and community leaders,” he said in an emailed statement.
“I look forward to continuing to work hard over the next few months on the challenges the rail project faces as well as getting the system ready and certified for the beginning of passenger service, as the Board continues its discussions and deliberations.”
HART has yet to announce a contract award on that last leg of work, under a so-called public-private partnership. One of the bidders recently disclosed to investors a proposal amount that was hundreds of millions of dollars more than what HART has budgeted.
Robbins said Thursday that the procurement remains active.
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