Former Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa is returning to Honolulu’s rail project, this time as an outside consultant to help the local rail agency’s board as it seeks to close the latest, multibillion dollar funding gap.

Hanabusa previously served as board chairwoman for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, a volunteer post. On Tuesday, the agency awarded her an 18-month contract, valued at $216,000, to assist the board “in the development and implementation of short and long-term funding strategies” for the local transit project.

“Obviously we have a funding shortfall. We need to effectively communicate with the state Legislature, we need to solve that issue,” HART Chief Operations Officer Rick Keene said at a HART board meeting in March. Hanabusa will fill that role and work as a liaison with city leaders as well under the new contract.

Hanabusa could earn up to $924,000 over six years if her contract is extended, according to HART officials.

Colleen Hanabusa.
Colleen Hanabusa is returning to HART, this time as a board consultant who will serve as a liaison to city and state leaders while rail faces a renewed multibillion-dollar deficit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The qualifications sought in the request for proposals from competitors seeking the award were narrow. HART sought someone with a law degree and 20 years of experience practicing law, at least 10 years of experience at either the city and county or state level of government “in legislation and policy making,” and a minimum of five years of experience at the federal government level in legislation and policy making.

Hanabusa, a longtime labor attorney who served in the Legislature and in the U.S. Congress, met those qualifications. She was the only bidder, according to HART officials. She was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

HART is also looking to hire an additional liaison to work with federal leaders.

The hiring comes after HART leadership under Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina purged nearly half of HART’s staff in an attempt to eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies at the agency. Kahikina has also said the move aims to show that HART is willing to make its own steep cuts for savings if rail leaders eventually seek more funding.

At the board’s meeting last month, board member Kika Bukoski questioned the need for the local liaison contract.

Our primary responsibility shouldn’t be to be lobbying for funding,” Bukoski said on March 18. “Our primary responsibility is to construct and develop the rail, although I agree that we should support” efforts to get more funding.

Bukoski’s colleague on the board, Hoyt Zia, acknowledged HART’s history of paying consultants “vast amounts of money for questionable services” and stated that “no amount is too small” to cut.

Nonetheless, Zia said “there are some things that are necessary and useful and justified and I think these two (state and federal consulting) positions … are very important” to help build and maintain relationships on the state and federal level.

Read the scope of services in the request for proposal, including the qualifications needed, here:

Read HART’s award letter to Hanabusa here:

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