In just the past month, rail’s new interim director has fired nearly half the staff at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the local agency that has managed the struggling transit project for nearly a decade.

Some, including the project’s own federal partners, worry that such a sudden and deep purge by Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina might have been too severe, and that it could actually hamper rail’s progress in the long run.

Nonetheless, Kahikina, who took over in January, said the staff cuts would eliminate “redundancies and inefficiencies” while the now $12.4 billion rail project finds itself in a lull with little progress being made other than design work. 

“My intention, I was clear from day one. I’m going to be evaluating everyone,” Kahikina said Monday in an interview. “Anxiety levels are really high here so I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.” The agency-wide shake-up is done, she said.

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 on the recent HART purge: “Anxiety levels are really high here so I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Some 48 of the 112 city employees who were at HART when Kahikina arrived are no longer there. The vast majority were fired in March after she consulted with agency managers, although some resigned, she told Civil Beat.

HART also removed about a dozen contractors embedded within the agency, she said. 

The contractors who remain there via outside transit industry and engineering firms, most of whom collect higher salaries and cost more than the city employees, will make up the agency’s core rail expertise for the time being, according to HART Chief Operations Officer Rick Keene, who serves as Kahikina’s second-in-command.

Kahikina said she expects to eventually replace many of those who were fired or left, although she wasn’t sure on Monday how many and could not give a rough estimate. 

HART also plans to release a cost-savings estimate from the staff cuts later this week, she said. She added that she was not worried that they would cripple the agency she runs or add greater project costs.

The state’s largest public-sector union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, filed a grievance against HART in late March claiming that the rail agency did not provide sufficient notice of its intent to lay off union members.

The HGEA grievance requests that its members be reinstated with back pay, and that HART provide the union with any documents showing the reason for the layoffs.

HART formally responded to the grievance last week, Kahikina said, as it followed through with its second and last wave of layoffs. The agency argues that the city employees it let go were employed under personal services contracts and thus aren’t covered by the standard articles cited by HGEA. Kahikina said she expects HGEA to file a second grievance after the second wave of some 30 city employees were purged last week.

Kahikina declined to confirm some of the key city employees that she fired, citing the ongoing HGEA proceedings. 

However, a draft HART organizational chart obtained by Civil Beat and sources from within the agency who aren’t at liberty to speak publicly indicate that longtime employees with institutional knowledge across the agency were dismissed. 

Kahikina confirmed that several key contractors resigned from the project in recent months, including Steven Stowe, HART’s former director for activation and readiness, and Ralph McKinney, the agency’s former chief safety and security officer.

Their departures come as HART has struggled with mounting delays in handing over the first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium to city control for interim service. City Department of Transportation Services officials will help fill the void left by Stowe in particular, Keene said.

HART throughout its history has seen high turnover and struggled to retain staff, including top-level managers and expertise. Hill International, a third-party firm hired to oversee rail by the Federal Transit Administration, has previously flagged that as a problem. 

A Rocky Path At HART

The local rail agency has grown increasingly unpopular among the island’s political leadership in recent years as the project’s costs have soared. Former Honolulu City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson even proposed in 2019 that voters decide whether to end the agency altogether and put DTS in charge of rail instead.

His colleagues on the council swiftly shot down that idea after Kahikina’s predecessor, former Executive Director Andrew Robbins, argued that the move would upend HART’s efforts to sign a public-private partnership. That effort imploded anyway when the city opted last year to withdraw from the pursuit as soon as it could.

Kahikina acknowledged Monday that firing nearly half the staff looked “alarming,” but she said the move would help save costs as the city looks to fill what’s now a nearly $4 billion budget gap to finish the 20-mile, 21-station elevated line from the fields east of Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

Hill representatives raised concerns about the firings last week during its conference with HART officials, Kahikina said. She added that her team tried to put them at ease over the move but wouldn’t comment further on the closed-door meetings.

Kahikina and Keene each worked for former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell before joining HART in January. Kahikina served as Environmental Services director throughout Caldwell’s full eight-year stint in office, while Keene worked as an executive assistant to the managing director monitoring the rail project.

One of Kahikina’s first acts upon taking the job was to fire HART’s longtime director of communications, Bill Brennan, and the agency’s longtime government relations liaison, Joyce Oliveira, who was HART’s deputy director for government relations and public involvement when she was let go.

Both Brennan and Oliveira served under one of Caldwell’s predecessors, former mayor Mufi Hannemann, who was openly critical of Caldwell’s leadership on rail. 

Kahikina also hired former City Councilman Joey Manahan, a longtime Caldwell ally on rail, as HART’s new director for government relations and public involvement. 

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