Andrew Robbins was a key member of the Oahu Transit Group that was working on the city’s rail project in the 1990s when it was killed by a Honolulu City Council vote, an outcome he called “a huge disappointment.”
More than two decades later, the 59-year-old Robbins will have the opportunity to complete the current 20-mile line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana, a project that has seen costs jump to a range of $8 billion to $10 billion, depending on different financing scenarios.
On Monday the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation voted 6-1 to make Robbins its new permanent executive director and chief executive officer. Board member John Henry Felix voted against his appointment. Members Damien Kim and Hoyt Zia did not attend the meeting.
Robbins relocated to Hawaii from the mainland in 1990 to be project manager of the core systems of the project that began under the late Mayor Frank Fasi, he said in an telephone interview from San Francisco, where he’s now based as a longtime executive for Canadian-based Bombardier Transportation.
Bombardier was one of the partners in the Oahu Transit Group, and Robbins spent four years in Honolulu. It was here where he met his wife, who came to the isles from the Philippines as a young adult.
But in 1992, after initial work had been done, the Council voted 5-4 not to proceed with a half-percent excise tax increase to help finance what was estimated to be a $1.6 billion heavy rail project extending to the Waiawa Interchange that connects the H-2 and H-1 freeways. That effectively killed the project, and Robbins left around 1994.
After he left Honolulu he continued with Bombardier throughout the U.S. and even in China, where Bombardier was part of a joint venture to develop that country’s first driverless rail line through Shanghai.
Driverless rail systems are Robbins’ specialty, a HART release said.
While he didn’t make it his goal to return to Hawaii to finish the project one day, he’s followed the progress of rail in Honolulu in the news over the years, and when the HART job opened up, he decided to apply.
The project largely mirrors the 1990s project, he said.
“I thought it was a fantastic project back then,” he said. “It was a really transformational project serving such a major portion of the island. And it would impact so many people’s lives, I felt, in a very positive way in terms of addressing the mobility issues on Oahu.”
Robbins will start his new job Sept. 5. His three-year contract will pay him $317,000 annually in base pay, and up to 3.5 percent more if he meets performance-based objectives. He will receive a $55,000 annual housing allowance and a $7,200 transportation allowance, as well as a one-time $6,000 payment for relocation expenses.
Robbins has spent the last 37 years at Bombardier and is its senior director and head of automated systems business development for the Americas, according to a resume he submitted to HART.
The agency received more than 100 applications for the job. Robbins was one of seven finalists.
He is the permanent replacement to Dan Grabauskas, who resigned in August after coming under fire from city officials and the public. Interim Executive Director Krishniah Murthy, who has a yearlong $400,000 contract through December, will remain with HART during a transition period.
Robbins will join HART as train and system testing is expected to accelerate under the agency’s “core systems” contractor, Hitachi-owned Ansaldo Honolulu JV. In 2011 Ansaldo and Bombardier were among the three finalists vying for that public contract — the largest in the state’s history. The contract is to design and build the train cars, and operate the transit line for up to 10 years.
Ansaldo’s bid came in at $1.4 billion; Bombardier’s was $234 million less, but Ansaldo received the contract after the city disqualified Bombardier’s bid. Soon after, Robbins helped lead a protracted protest and legal challenge against the city to overturn the Ansaldo award.
Under Grabauskas, HART would later blame the Bombardier challenges (plus a Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs challenge by the third firm that competed, Sumitomo Corp. of America) for costing the rail project more than $29 million in change orders to automate the tracks at the rail operations center in Pearl City, where the 20 four-car trains will be stored and repaired.
The challenges prevented HART from talking to Ansaldo about the project, and previous rail leaders had to choose whether to start the design work without Ansaldo’s input or risk waiting too long if the challenges to the contract award lingered, according to Grabauskas, who joined HART in 2012.
Felix, the lone “no” vote, said he hadn’t had an opportunity to meet with Robbins or have an in-depth conversation with him and learn about his leadership style. Felix also mentioned the lawsuit and that he wanted to learn more about it and what precipitated it.
But Robbins said he was still a Bombardier employee and that it would be inappropriate to speak about the company’s litigation with the city. “I’ll be happy to talk to you more about that once I’m on board with HART,” he said.
Robbins said he expects to have a workable relationship with Ansaldo officials.
“No question in my mind,” he said. “I’m all about partnerships, and they will immediately become one of my major partners and I see my job as making sure that they are successful because they’re a key to the overall success of the project.”
He added, “Having said that, I know who I’m hired by and who I represent. I represent the taxpayers, and I’m going to be looking out for the interest of the taxpayers.”
Asked his opinion about the project’s troubled history and what led it to this point, Robbins said he could only reiterate the issues he learned through the different reports and other information available on the HART website and various news accounts.
Murthy and the HART staff have worked hard to put the project “on the right track, and I will certainly be … making sure that it does go on the right track,” Robbins said. “It’s important for the work in progress to make sure that that’s stabilized, and then carrying that forward, I certainly want to understand, base line, everything that’s happened and make sure I capture all the lessons learned because, obviously, mistakes have been made.”
For instance, the Kiewit project to build the first 10 miles of guideway was issued and then halted before it could start, which pushed the work schedule to a construction boom period from a recessionary period, he said.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Robbins received degrees from Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania, and “consider myself more of a Pennsylvanian than anything else these days,” he said. Later he migrated to the West Coast, where he continued his career at Bombardier.
Robbins said his wife’s family is still there and that she and their son, 4, will relocate here when he starts his job. An older stepdaughter already lives full time in Honolulu, as does a granddaughter, a sister-in-law and her family.
While spending an entire career as a transportation engineer and executive with Bombardier, the HART job will be his first as a government employee.
His father, Milton, now 95, was a city engineer and public works director in New Jersey his entire career. “So it might have been in my blood all this time and it’s finally come out,” he said, chuckling. “So in a way I’m honoring my father by taking this job.”
Asked whether he intends to stay through construction of the project, Robbins said he has no retirement plan. Being the father of a young child while in his 50s has energized him, he said. “He’s probably extended my life already at least 10 years. I just can’t sit in the rocking chair and relax, you know? Which is a total blessing.”
Star-Advertiser reporter Marcel Honoré contributed to this report.