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Getting Honolulu’s rail project back on track

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Under a one-year contract, which started in December, Krishniah Murthy is tasked with leading the semi-autonomous agency responsible for completing Oahu’s cash-strapped multibillion-dollar elevated transit system.

Even as a child, rail loomed large in Krishniah Murthy’s life. As the son of a police officer who was transferred every three years to various parts of Karnataka, India, Murthy grew up in multiple cities, enrolling in many different schools.

“Rail being the backbone of the transit system in India, I had to use trains to go visit my relatives or go during summer vacations to new places. The train journeys fascinated me and I could see how the cultures and people get connected by rail,” said Murthy, who now serves as interim executive director for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART).

Those early connectivity impressions prompted him to pursue admission to engineering college, which was quite competitive at the time, and gain entry into the field.

“This profession has its ups and downs like any other. … You are in high clouds when you are the first driver over the new bridge that you designed and built. You are in the front car with the engineer when the train goes through the tunnel that you designed and built. And you stand on the platform of a rail station and see thousands using the system that you were a part of.”

Under a one-year contract, which started in December, Murthy is tasked with leading the semi-autonomous agency responsible for completing Oahu’s cash-strapped multibillion-dollar elevated transit system.

“I really appreciate the support I’ve received from so many here,” he said. “The majority of the people that I have met … do seem to realize that the future of this island is much better with this alternative mode of transportation.”

Question: How is your initial goal of getting our troubled rail project back on track coming along?

Answer: I’ve already made some changes in our procurement and claims division, consolidating into one department some of the tasks that were scattered throughout the organization. I have recruited a new CFO and regrouped all financial functions in the organization under his leadership, and I’m looking to do something similar in our construction management and oversight areas.

Q: What aspect of your job are you finding most challenging?

A: Containing costs and keeping scheduling on a construction project of this size and scope is challenging. A delay in one area has a domino effect in others. So we need to be mindful that when we miss a deadline or have to postpone a certain job, that has consequences and makes it difficult for people who are trying to manage other components of the project. … I think we need to ask ourselves constantly why are we making this choice, this decision and is there a better answer that won’t cost as much or take as long.

Q: Is anything going surprisingly smoothly?

A: No, but I will say I appreciate the working relationship I’ve been able to establish in such a short time with the HART board and Mayor (Kirk) Caldwell and City Council leaders and state lawmakers and members of the business community and others. … If those relationships weren’t in place, the work and the challenges would be so much more daunting.

Q: According to a recent report by the American Public Transportation Association, HART’s progress is being hindered by high turnover in prominent posts, years-old construction issues, etc. Thoughts?

A: The recent APTA Peer Review Panel Report on Honolulu’s rail transit project confirmed some of the areas of improvement that we needed to make in our organization structure, and their recommendations will help us improve the management of this project. We are encouraged that the panel’s four members, who are all senior executives with significant transit experience, have acknowledged the good efforts of the project team.

… They pointed out areas where improvement is sorely needed. Our Project Management Plan and other policies and procedures need to be updated, and we will work to complete that update.

We do have far too much turnover in some key positions, and that has likely led to some poor decisions being made over time. We have interviews scheduled over the next few weeks and hope to fill some of those key positions. We need to take specific actions to retain and recruit the talented staff we need to effectively manage and deliver this project.

Other recommendations are that we look to make improvements in our claims department and in construction administration. We are taking steps to address those areas to improve our oversight of our contractors’ schedules. I have brought in some temporary help to catch up and to set schedules for all the activities of the project.

Q: HART and the city face an April 30 deadline to submit a fresh financial strategy to the Federal Transit Administration or risk losing some $1.55 billion in funding. How is that effort going?

A: Our Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) with the FTA is a binding contract that requires Honolulu to complete its rail project as planned – 20 miles and 21 stations from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, with 80 rail cars. However, the FTA is requiring HART and the city to come up with a Recovery Plan.

We are currently working on two plans. Plan A is to build rail as originally planned … to Ala Moana Center. That will require funding beyond what we presently expect to receive. And that is why we are asking the Legislature to provide us a mechanism to raise the revenue necessary to complete the project.

Plan B would have us build what we can with the money we expect to have without any increase. That’s a much poorer choice and we would try to stretch the funds we have to try to get the end the guideway to downtown, but we would delete all stations in Kalihi and Chinatown, in Kakaako and at Ala Moana. The Pearl Highlands Transit Center would also be deleted, which would impact commuters and rail passengers in Mililani, Central Oahu and the North Shore. It’s definitely an inferior choice that would have far fewer riders and still cost billions.

There is also a good possibility that FTA might seek either reduction in their grant participation level or demand, or a complete withdrawal of their participation from the project. In that scenario our ability to implement a meaningful Plan B becomes even more challenging. … The rail system’s usefulness to a large percentage of potential passengers would be drastically reduced.

Q: You have some four decades of experience in the management of rail projects, most recently at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority. How does Honolulu’s project compare?

A: In many ways Honolulu’s HART is very similar to where we were in the early 1980s in Los Angeles. The citizens of that “car capital” of the world … were very vocal and convinced that there was no need for rail in a manner very similar to Honolulu. However, votes prevailed to design and build what was then called the “backbone line” of an underground subway system.

We had very similar issues such as … right-of-way acquisitions and questions concerning the safety of the system as it was an underground facility in a seismically active region. Patience, perseverance and educating parties prevailed, and the first line was built in spite of some setbacks like a sink hole during the tunneling operations.

However, when the subway from downtown to North Hollywood was complete, the citizens realized the benefits of the system. Some economically depressed areas such as … Hollywood Boulevard became an attractive investment ground for hotels, theaters, condominiums and many small businesses.

This past November, in the general election, the voters of Los Angeles County overwhelmingly approved their tax extension, demanding transit expansions and highway improvements. Today Los Angeles is the center of many multimodal transit systems all of which will be interconnected.

That is exactly the picture I see here in Honolulu. I see the system ultimately expanded on both the east and west sides of this 20-mile system. It will be well-integrated with the existing bus system, which will become feeder lines to rail. I see new Bus Rapid Transit lines from some newly developed areas connected to rail.

I also foresee several transit-oriented developments taking place along the transit lines. This is the picture I envisioned when I accepted the HART Interim CEO position. … It was a personal challenge for me to see how I can lend my background and experience to create an exciting future for Honolulu.

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