Honolulu rail’s new interim executive director, Lori Kahikina, says she’s asked the project’s staff for “any out-of-the-box idea” — however “hare-brained” it might sound — to help get the transit line past Dillingham Boulevard and to Ala Moana.

That could involve avoiding Dillingham altogether and shifting rail elsewhere, such as along Nimitz Highway, Kahikina said in an interview after Thursday’s Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board meeting, her first as the agency’s new top executive.

The Nimitz alternative is one that Kahikina’s predecessors at the rail agency considered but later scrapped when they concluded that Dillingham was an essential part of the future transit route. Some 10,000 residents live around that crowded Kalihi corridor, city leaders have estimated.

Lori Kahikina, Director Dept of Environmental Services City of Honolulu gives press conference about a COVID-19 positive workers that are in quarantine now.
HART Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina is soliciting new ideas to get the rail line past Dillingham. Her predecessors at the agency considered several alternative routes before concluding the line should run along that crowded corridor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still, HART officials remain unsure of how to best complete the daunting utility relocations that would need to happen on Dillingham first to make way for rail. Meanwhile, construction of the rail system’s pillars and elevated pathway have nearly caught up to the area.

The utility conundrum has stalled rail’s progress, drastically driving up costs and delaying the full system’s opening by at least another several years to late 2027 or 2028 at the earliest.

On Thursday, Kahikina told Civil Beat that under her leadership HART would no longer pursue the clearance variances for utilities along Dillingham that the rail agency had previously sought from its counterpart agencies at the city.

That includes clearances from the Department of Environmental Services, which Kahikina oversaw under former Mayor Kirk Caldwell before moving to HART this month.

“We’re not going to get them,” Kahikina said of the clearance variances. HART must now seek an alternative approach to “avoid shoving (utility relocations) down the city’s throat,” she said.

“I don’t know what that is,” Kahikina added, referring to the alternative approach. Kahikina said she’s even floated the idea in staff meetings of building the line underground.

During Thursday’s meeting HART Project Director Stephen Cayetano said HART is considering a “mauka shift” in route along Dillingham but he didn’t offer specifics.

Any drastic changes in the rail alignment would likely trigger new environmental impact reviews that could add more delays and costs to the project, HART board member Jon Nouchi cautioned during the meeting.

Kahikina said her recollection is that rail’s environmental approvals encompass an area that is “maybe a block or two” from the current alignment, so the mauka shift being discussed might not require a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Any changes that would require such environmental approvals might still be worth it, compared to the current approach on Dillingham, she added after the meeting.

HART As An ‘Extension’ Of The City

Kahikina told HART board members Thursday that she’s evaluating every position at the agency, plus the project’s consultants and its contractors, in an effort to “streamline” the agency.

The existing organization “seems very confusing to me,” Kahikina told the board. She aims to simplify it — but she also plans to get more input from within HART on that effort first, she said.

Despite being a semi-autonomous agency, HART will operate as an extension of Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration, she said.

Several veteran officials at HART and members of Robbins’ inner circle were ousted Jan. 4, Kahikina’s first day on the job. She also held an all-hands meeting that day to address the agency staff and consultants on what to expect under her leadership.

“We are to be open, honest and transparent, even with the bad news,” she told the board Thursday. “Dishonesty will not be tolerated.”

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