The writing has been on the wall for a couple of months, but on Thursday the local board overseeing Oahu’s faltering rail transit project made it official.
Andrew Robbins is out as executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
The HART board will not renew Robbins’ contract when it expires Dec. 31. At their meeting Thursday, board members revealed they’re on the cusp of hiring an interim director who would replace him next month.
Lynn McCrory, who chairs the board’s Human Resources committee, said they still need to finalize an employment agreement and conduct a final interview with the candidate, whom she did not name.
Dean Hazama, McCrory’s colleague on the volunteer board, said they didn’t have a lot of time to conduct the search. “I think that this is the best option that we have at this time,” he said, noting the need to make sure the project proceeds without any further delay.
The pending change in guard comes as the state’s largest-ever public works project has once again fallen into financial crisis and slipped years off schedule.
Its current total price tag isn’t clear but the latest official estimates fall somewhere between $10 billion and $11 billion.
HART officials say they believe they can deliver the full 20-mile, 21-station system in either late 2027 or 2028. But the agency has consistently missed its schedule targets. Honolulu city leaders, perhaps in a bid to better manage public expectations, have said construction might continue until 2033.
Robbins has led the effort to build the project since September 2017.
Construction of the five-mile section from Aloha Stadium to Middle Street progressed relatively smoothly during his tenure. Robbins also led an aggressive (but still unfinished) effort to have the first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium ready to ride, so that passengers might soon start using the island’s first modern rail transit system and better grasp its full potential.
But Robbins’ tenure will probably be remembered most for his lengthy and ill-fated pursuit of a so-called public-private partnership to finish rail, and the breakdown of progress relocating utilities along Dillingham Boulevard that helped doom such a partnership.
Despite construction bids that came in well over budget, Robbins adamantly believed that a P3 deal benefitting the city financially was doable. The project will face higher construction costs and a cash shortage whether it pursues a P3 or not, he said.
This fall, he publicly clashed with city leaders, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who wanted to cancel the P3 contract procurement. The city withdrew from the effort, but HART under Robbins persisted and tried for two months to get the city to rejoin even as most of the HART board called on him to stop.
Board member Hoyt Zia told Robbins during a public meeting last month that his persistence on P3 would be considered “insubordinate” in the private sector.
By that point, however, the board had already been looking to replace him.
Board member Glenn Nohara expressed frustration in October that HART had changed its approach on how to tackle Dillingham utility relocations multiple times since August 2018, contributing to the current predicament.
Costs for that particular work have skyrocketed, and the effort was already well behind schedule before it abruptly stalled this past fall.
“We don’t really know where we stand within our budget,” Nohara said in October, during the board’s only public discussion of Robbins’ job performance. “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 expressed concern in Robbins’ 2019 performance evaluation that he had “failed to improve relationships with key political leaders,” although it didn’t specify which ones. (Two key state lawmakers — House Speaker Scott Saiki and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke — supported keeping Robbins on board, according to Terrence Lee, who recently left the HART board.)
Robbins had worked on previous, unsuccessful efforts to build a rail line in Honolulu in the 1990s during nearly 40 years with Bombardier Transportation.
This fall, as the board considered replacing him, he said he wanted to keep his job leading HART.
On Tuesday, however, he acknowledged that “the writing was on the wall.” Asked whether he thought the move was fair, Robbins took a long pause before simply saying, “I don’t know.”
“I’ve been obviously encouraged by a lot of the strong support I’ve received. Certainly the staff has been tremendous, talking about how much they appreciated my leadership over the last three years. That’s been huge,” he said.
Robbins had managed to keep rail’s budget in check for most of his three-year tenure, at just over $8 billion for construction and a total of around $9 billion with financing.
The completion schedule slipped slightly, from December 2025 to around September 2026.
But the P3 procurement effort took about twice as long as HART said it would, and the project faced mounting challenges and financial strain amid this year’s COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, as the Dillingham utility obstacles proved insurmountable and the P3 effort collapsed, rail’s costs swiftly spiked and the schedule slipped dramatically.
The project has vexed prior executive directors. In 2016, Robbins’ main predecessor, Daniel Grabauskas, resigned under a mutual agreement with the board as the costs similarly spiked that year.
Grabauskas, similar to Robbins, clashed with city leaders at Honolulu Hale and the board members who oversaw him at HART. His departure from the agency was abrupt.
Robbins at least appears to be leaving HART on better terms. On Thursday, after the HART board had spent nearly seven hours in meetings, Zia, the board member who previously called Robbins “insubordinate,” proposed that agency staff draft a resolution to thank Robbins for his years of service to rail.
His departure doesn’t take away from his accomplishments during his time at HART, Zia said.
Caldwell also thanked Robbins during his testimony before the board Thursday.
“We may not have seen eye to eye on things, but I know this for sure: you and I care passionately about this project,” Caldwell said.
The mayor grew emotional Thursday while thanking HART board and staff for their service to the project, reflecting on rail and expressing regret that he wouldn’t see the transit system completed during his tenure.
In 2012, when Caldwell was elected to his first full mayoral term, the project was supposed to be finished in 2019 and start passenger service earlier this year.
Now, it faces an uncertain future — and it’s unclear who will be guiding rail next year.
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