Honolulu’s rail oversight board voted unanimously Thursday to approve a nearly $15 million change order that it hopes will finally resolve the costly canopy arm snafus that have plagued west side station construction for years.

That $14.7 million will go to the local firm building six of the nine stations, Nan Inc., even though it’s still unclear who’s responsible for the cracks that started forming in the steel canopy arms shortly after they were built and who should ultimately bear the costs to replace them.

Previously, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials have flagged poor design, faulty fabrication or both as the culprit — a position that could point blame at some of Nan’s own subcontractors, among others.

“Our position on this is that ultimately someone else is going to have to pay for it,” Frank Kosich, HART’s former deputy director for design and construction, told the board about the defective arms in 2019. Kosich left the local rail agency earlier this year.

The intricate, unique design of the canopy arms has made them tough to fabricate, rail officials say. Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

During a briefing Thursday, HART officials mentioned an ongoing “liability analysis” for the canopy arm defects but didn’t provide details. 

The rail agency did not respond to Civil Beat’s request to discuss the canopy arm costs after Thursday’s board meeting.

What’s known, however, is that the $15 million agreement with Nan comes on top of a $10 million provisional sum approved by HART in 2019 to redesign the canopy arms once the defects appeared. 

The redesign was especially expensive because HART at the time was still trying to finish the first 10 miles of the elevated rail line in time for service to begin by the end of 2020. Only later did rail officials learn that there were separate flaws in the rail crossings along the west side that likely would have stopped them from reaching that goal anyway.

Rail officials are still working to fix the problems with those crossings, or “frogs,” and they don’t expect to have the first 10 miles ready until 2022.

On Thursday, HART Project Director Nathaniel “Nate” Meddings did not mention the earlier $10 million for redesign during his board briefing, although he did outline much of the canopy arms’ history of problems going back to 2016.

Hawaiian Dredging is building the three remaining stations on the west side, apart from Nan, and the company’s canopy arm costs were resolved in a separate claim, Meddings told the board. He didn’t have the cost readily available at the meeting.

Aloha Stadium rail station.
A future rail station at Aloha Stadium, including the canopies that have caused so many construction challenges along the transit system’s western 10 miles. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The stations’ steel arms hold up fabric masts to shelter passengers. Their design is inspired by traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoes. But they’re also critical because the rail system’s various conduits and wires are designed to pass through them.

Overall, construction on the rail line’s nine west side stations has been plagued by massive cost increases due to what project officials call “interface issues” — the separate designs for the stations’ buildings, core communication systems, fare gates, escalators and other components didn’t fit together properly. 

That’s largely because the contracts to build the stations went out to bid before all the other designs were completed, according to HART construction officials. They anticipated cost increases to fix problems where the designs didn’t fit together but not at the levels they’ve seen.

Nan’s original contract to build rail’s three westernmost stations, for example, was $56 million. Change orders have since increased that contract to over $96 million, including the canopy costs. 

“I would say we incurred more costs than we thought we were going to,” Kosich said of the stations in 2019.

HART does not foresee having the same problems on rail’s eastern 10 miles into town because the contractor is also in charge of the design work. It does face considerable challenges and huge cost increases related to utility relocation, however.

The Nan canopy arms settlement passed Thursday with just seven votes, even though typically HART requires eight votes. HART board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa did not respond to a query after the meeting.

Mystery Action From A Former Rail Employee

The HART board on Thursday also met in closed session to discuss “employment-related action by (a) former employee against defendants including HART and (a) HART board official.”

It’s not clear who that former employee is. The board discussed the matter behind closed doors for more than an hour and then took no action. Hanabusa said the board got an update on an ongoing claim related to “upcoming mediation.”

Meanwhile, in a separate meeting this Tuesday, the Honolulu City Council is slated to discuss in private whether to settle a claim made by HART’s former executive director, Dan Grabauskas, for legal expenses he incurred as part of federal authorities’ investigation into the transit project.

The council will further weigh whether to hire a special counsel to represent Grabauskas as part of the investigation into potential criminal activity regarding rail. 

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