Honolulu rail’s notorious “frog” problem, in which the train wheels don’t properly align with the tracks at certain crossings, should be fixed via welding by the end of April, officials reported on Friday in a generally upbeat meeting on the future of the troubled project.

The basic design snafu has vexed rail officials for more than a year. It’s halted progress toward an interim opening of the future transit line’s western half, running from east Kapolei to Aloha Stadium. Specialized welders from the mainland should finally arrive on Oahu next month to work on the tracks, according to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Lori Kahikina.

During the agency’s first-ever “State of HART” presentation, Kahikina said that she’s confident those fixes will occur without any issues.

It’s the step that follows those fixes that makes her nervous, however.

Workers work on train guideway and rails at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Work advances on the tracks near the Honolulu airport. Design snafus with the track crossings farther west have delayed the ability to provide partial passenger service to Aloha Stadium. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Once the track welding is done, the rail system will have to undergo 90 consecutive days of error-free operational testing. If anything goes wrong as the driverless trains run along the elevated track, crews will have to start the testing period over from scratch.

Kahikina said her worst fear is that a testing glitch would occur on day 89.

Besides her concerns over the future testing, the rest of Kahikina’s briefing Friday on the state of HART was positive. The new presentation was required under her employment contract, she said. She described the rail agency as making significant strides in 2021 while acknowledging that the multibillion-dollar megaproject still faces significant financial challenges.

Kahikina was also bluntly critical of how HART was managed under her predecessor, Andrew Robbins — although she never mentioned him by name.

“There wasn’t a very good relationship between the city and HART. We had very low credibility,” Kahikina told the board of the time leading up to her hiring. She described the rail agency workers as being “siloed” from one another prior to 2021. “The previous CEO’s contract was not renewed,” she pointed out.

Kahikina, notably, was one of the city leaders who clashed with Robbins. She worked as the Environmental Services Department director, and she intervened to help stop utility design work along Dillingham Boulevard that would have required special clearances. Such design variances don’t meet industry standards, she said. During her presentation Friday, she acknowledged that she previously was on “the other side” of the frayed relationship with HART.

She further touted her move to streamline the agency and save money by purging nearly half its staff. She cited HART’s cancellation of an inefficient and expensive utility relocation contract, as well as the completion of rail’s long-overdue project management plan. That latter move, she said, ensured the city would hold on to some $500 million in federal funding that was poised to lapse.

Wary Of ‘Sunshine And Rainbows’

Kahikina quoted language in a recent report by the contractors hired to oversee rail for the Federal Transit Administration that praised the increased “openness and transparency” they’ve seen under her leadership. That report hasn’t been released publicly because the board hasn’t seen it yet. A HART spokesman said it may become available next week.

In response to Kahikina’s briefing, some board members expressed caution against being too optimistic. Jade Butay, who sits on the board as the state’s Department of Transportation director, described the presentation as “sunshine and rainbows.” Natalie Iwasa, a state appointee who participates in board proceedings, added that a more robust discussion of the concerns and challenges facing rail “lends credibility to what we’re working on.”

HART Interim Director Lori Kahikina listens as Mayor Blangiardi conducts his post State of Honolulu speech Q&A with the media.
HART Director Lori Kahikina: The agency’s relationships with key stakeholders have improved in the past year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Meanwhile, HART board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa expressed her own concerns that too much is being spent on so-called “professional services” — the consultants, engineers and inspectors hired to help oversee the transit system’s construction.  

“It’s troubling to me,” Hanabusa told HART staff. Professional services are “still a huge ticket item,” she said. She wants to ensure that the contingency dollars that often go to those contractors don’t become a “slush fund,” Hanabusa added.

Any such expense “has to be valid, legitimate,” she said.

HART staff is heavily focused on drafting the latest recovery plan for the project, which currently faces a nearly $2 billion shortfall, according to the latest official cost estimates.

The agency hopes to finish the designs for utility relocation along Dillingham this year and issue a request for proposals by the end of the year in order to award that contract, Kahikina added.

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