The local board overseeing Honolulu’s troubled rail project is poised to lose one of its most outspoken members — and someone who’s called for a halt to construction — as city leaders aim to replace him.

That board member, construction-cost estimator Joe Uno, has served for about a year on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board and he wants to stay there for a new term.

He voiced strong objections Thursday to the move to cut him — and even sharper criticisms of his would-be replacement: Anthony Aalto.

“It’s disappointing that I didn’t get a vote of confidence for the work that I was doing,” Uno said Thursday morning.

Rail snakes thru on the mauka side of the parking structure at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. September 2020
Rail snakes through on the mauka side of the parking structure at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Its fate past Middle Street remains up in the air. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

He believes his support for halting the project at Middle Street, so that the city might consider alternatives to proceeding down Dillingham Boulevard given rail’s $3.6 billion funding shortfall, “has everything to do with my not being renominated.” That stance put him at odds with most of his board colleagues.

Uno’s term expired last month, but he has stayed on because the City Council neither nominated him nor anyone else to the new term.

Joe Uno
Construction cost estimate consultant Joe Uno is poised to be replaced on the HART board. He believes his stance to pause construction at Middle Street and assess alternatives is the reason why. Courtesy: J. Uno & Associates

That limbo state changed Wednesday, however, when Kalihi Councilwoman Radiant Cordero, who chairs the Transportation, Sustainability and Health Committee, introduced a resolution for Aalto, a documentary filmmaker, journalist and former Sierra Club Oahu Group chair, to join the board.

Aalto will replace Uno if Cordero’s resolution passes her committee on Tuesday and then gets approved by the full council at a later date.

“It has become increasingly apparent that a fresh perspective is needed on the HART board of directors,” Cordero said in a statement Thursday.

Cordero declined an interview request through a council spokeswoman on Thursday, who said her schedule was full.

Aalto’s “wide array of experience and goals for social equity will be at the core of his volunteer board service,” the statement added. “He has a history of gathering information on all sides of an issue to seek the best path toward collaborative solutions.”

Later in the day, after researching Aalto’s resume and background, Uno expressed outrage at the choice.

“I’m insulted. To replace me with someone with no qualifications? It’s pretty transparent, and not in a good way. I’m pretty angry now,” he said.

Uno said Aalto didn’t appear qualified to oversee the state’s largest-ever public works project “unless you’re going to make a movie about it.”

A ‘Concerned Citizen’

To be sure, many of HART’s board members both past and present have lacked the minimum five years leadership experience in the transit sector or a similar industry that’s sought by the City Council.

“I don’t think I’m being asked to be on the board because I have some expertise in those areas,” Aalto said Thursday.

Aalto said what he offers is the skill to dig into local issues.

“We’ve had people with supposedly that sort of (transit) expertise on the HART board up until now and I’m not sure where that expertise has been deployed. On the contrary, these ‘experts’ have done a miserable job, starting with the first person that they hired to run the thing,” Aalto said. “Hiring Dan Grabauskas was a mistake, and to my mind was a mistake that became obvious fairly quickly.”

Grabauskas led HART for several years before being pushed out by the board in 2016.

The documentary films that Aalto produced via his company, Green Island Films, have explored Oahu’s land-use and housing policies — and his history with Honolulu rail goes back a ways.

Nearly a decade ago the filmmaker chronicled the local Sierra Club leadership’s tense, behind-the-scenes debate over the decision to eventually endorse the transit project, and how it might impact Oahu, in the documentary film “Railroading Paradise.”

Sierra Club Anthony Aalto speaks during Mayor Caldwell presser, announcing the endorsement of Caldwell by the Hawaii Sierra Club at Magic Island. 1 nov 2016
Former Sierra Club Oahu Group Chairman Anthony Aalto, a documentary filmmaker who’s delved into land and housing issues on the island, is poised to join the HART board. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

On Thursday Aalto said he would approach his role on the board as a “concerned citizen” similar to Natalie Iwasa, the longtime vocal rail critic who was recently appointed to the HART board by the Legislature. He would push for greater scrutiny and transparency at the agency, he said.

“We should’ve had a Natalie Iwasa on the board from the get-go,” Aalto said. “Like everyone else on this island I’m extremely upset and frustrated with how it’s been managed up until now.”

Iwasa, however, has generally expressed skepticism of rail’s value relative to its costs while Aalto supports building the line.

He said he doesn’t consider Middle Street a viable end point, although he has never preferred ending the line at Ala Moana, either.

“It has to have a route that makes sense. And if it doesn’t it will be such an enormous white elephant,” Aalto said Thursday. “The cost overruns have already been extraordinary. To have those cost overruns, to have that expense and to get essentially nothing out of that would compound the extraordinary waste that’s already occurred.”

He added that rail remains a vital alternative to the H-1 Freeway for Westside residents whose commutes to Oahu’s east end are only growing longer.

HART In A Constant State Of Flux

Uno’s departure, and Aalto’s possible entrance, is just the latest shakeup in a tumultuous year for HART and its board.

Last Friday, Toby Martyn resigned as HART board chair. An agency press release simply cited “personal reasons.” Martyn declined to elaborate.

Nonetheless, Martyn’s resignation came as the board continues to face scrutiny for its questionable handling of two recent consultant contract awards, including one that went to Colleen Hanabusa, Hawaii’s former U.S. representative and the HART board’s former chairwoman.

Hanabusa in May declined her consultancy contract award and opted to fill a seat that was opening up on the board instead. She presided over her first new committee hearing earlier this month.

Martyn, meanwhile, happened to hold the one seat on the board that’s appointed by the eight other voting members. The board is now seeking qualified candidates to replace him, and on July 30 they’ll discuss further how to select that replacement.

What remains unclear is whether Uno would have an outsized role in who replaces Martyn and who serves as the new chair if he was to stay on the HART board.

The Honolulu City Charter says that Martyn’s seat is selected by a majority vote. But it’s not clear if that refers to a majority of HART’s nine voting members or of its 14 total members, including the five who don’t vote.

HART spokesman Joey Manahan did not respond to a text asking for that clarification. Usually, the board needs eight “yes” votes to take action on rail business.

The rail agency has also seen nearly half of its staff purged under Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina, who took over at the beginning of the year. Kahikina said the move was a necessary cost-cutting measure that made sense while there’s no major construction occurring past Middle Street.

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