Mainland hui doubts rail schedule, price tag
A new peer review raises renewed concerns over the Honolulu rail agency’s ability to gauge the true cost and schedule for Oahu’s cash-strapped transit project.
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A new peer review penned by transit industry experts from across North America raises renewed concerns over the Honolulu rail agency’s ability to gauge the true cost and schedule for Oahu’s cash-strapped transit project.
Staff members at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation are doing the best they can — but high turnover, key vacancies and years-old construction issues have hindered their progress on the largest public works project in state history, according to a 2017 report by the American Public Transportation Association.
The report, obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, comes after a four-person panel of transit professionals visited Oahu in January to assess HART’s performance. Rail and city leaders had agreed in September to the review by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit as they sought more time from the Federal Transit Administration to come up with a plan for what to do about rail. The project has a budget shortfall of some $3 billion.
The APTA panel included experts who’ve helped lead transit systems in Vancouver, British Columbia; Santa Clara, Calif.; and New York.
Their report, which HART officials received Tuesday, raises issues similar to those flagged by auditors and independent overseers of rail during the past year. It also comes at a critical juncture as the state Legislature weighs whether to give the city a second tax extension to complete rail.
HART’s Project Controls team, which aims to keep accurate tabs on rail’s cost and schedule, is “competent” but “does not have much depth based on (the) size and complexity of the project,” the reviewers found. The team should have more “experienced staff focused on scheduling, cost estimation and trend reporting,” according to the APTA report.
Rail’s official projected cost has almost doubled since December 2014 — spiking from a $5.26 billion price tag to what Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently told state lawmakers could be about $10 billion depending on how the project is financed.
It’s not clear how many staff members comprise rail’s Project Controls team, how long they’ve been there or what — if any — changes have been made recently to the group. HART officials declined Thursday to comment on the 18-page report’s findings because the agency has not yet presented it to the board. Deputy Executive Director Brennon Morioka said HART was still reviewing the document.
Furthermore, the APTA report found that HART’s project schedule, which now has rail starting full service in December 2025, is “not fully accurate.” That’s largely because the agency lacks the necessary schedule updates from the contractors building the project, it stated.
HART has not been sharing its master project schedule with all of the agency’s team members to review, the report found. The panel’s schedule concerns echo similar warnings in recent months by Jacobs Engineering, the independent firm hired by rail’s federal partners to oversee the project.
Since September, Jacobs has fretted in its monthly reports that rail’s December 2025 opening date “may not be realistic” and should be more closely vetted. The current 2025 scheduled opening already pushes the transit system’s original start date back by nearly six years.
Since late 2014 rail leaders have repeatedly pointed to the island’s surging construction market — and particularly national data from the firm Ryder Levett Bucknall that show Honolulu as one of the hottest such markets in the U.S. — to explain the project’s skyrocketing cost. Nonetheless, the peer review report found that “previous contracting decisions” also had “a significant impact on claims, budget and schedule.”
Similarly, in their report from April, staff with the Honolulu city auditor’s office “found deficiencies related to HART’s cost controls that, in our opinion, partly contributed to the significant cost increases.” The agency could have taken “a more proactive approach in implementing cost-control measures,” the city auditor found.
HART disputed those findings at the time under its former executive director, Dan Grabauskas, who blasted the auditor’s report as deeply flawed and rushed under pressure by the city’s political leaders. Grabauskas resigned in August.
Despite its concerns, the APTA panel found that once rail is finished it will “significantly improve mobility throughout Honolulu.” They praised interim HART Executive Director Krishniah Murthy, who replaced Grabauskas, and Project Director Sam Carnaggio for their “excellent experience for delivering a project like HART.”
Murthy has a one-year contract on the project.
The APTA report blamed much of HART’s frequent staff turnover on requirements for a one-year personal services contract, which it said deprives agency staff of long-term employment guarantees.
Since 2015 about a dozen directors, managers and other prominent personnel have left the project, a Star-Advertiser analysis found last year.
The turnover is affecting the project’s progress, the APTA’s January report stated. The HART board is expected to review the report next week.
APTA Peer Review Report by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd