The saga of Honolulu’s financially strapped rail project enters a new chapter Friday when veteran city engineering chief Lori Kahikina takes over as interim chief executive officer of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
Kahikina has been director of the city Department of Environmental Services the past eight years under outgoing Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whose term ends Saturday. Prior to that she was the city’s director of design and construction under former Mayor Peter Carlisle.
The contract of current HART CEO and Executive Director Andrew Robbins, who’s been on the job the past three years, was not renewed by the HART board, and his last day is Thursday.
HART board Chairman Tobias Martyn made Kahikina’s appointment to the lightning-rod position public in a news release Monday morning.
Kahikina told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that while she would like the job permanently, “I understand I need to prove myself and earn the trust of the public, the HART board, the FTA, the City Council, the other agencies, the different utilities and all the other stakeholders.”
The discussions regarding Robbins’ future, and then later the details of Kahikina’s hire, have taken place largely behind closed doors before HART’s Human Resources Committee. The full HART board voted 8-1 last week to approve the interim appointment, but her name was not released immediately “because we needed to finalize the employment agreement,” Martyn told the Star- Advertiser.
Martyn noted that it took six to eight months for Robbins to be selected as part of a national search three years ago. “And everybody, even those who don’t see eye to eye, agreed that we don’t have six to eight months,” he said of HART’s current situation. “We have pressing deadlines and issues that need to be addressed now.”
The HART board decided several months ago to toss out its years-long effort, driven largely by Robbins, to procure a public-private partnership (P3) agreement to have a private entity complete the final leg of the project, build a major parking structure and station at Pearl Highlands and operate and maintain the East Kapolei-to- Ala Moana line for the first 30 years.
As a result, a majority of board members agreed to look within the state, and a group of roughly five candidates emerged, Martyn said.
The urgency is a key reason why Kahikina’s hire is interim and for one year, Martyn said.
Kahikina will be paid $275,000. Robbins has been paid $317,000 a year and also has a $55,000 annual housing allowance and a $7,200 annual transportation allowance. Kahikina will not get a housing allowance or transportation allowance.
While Kahikina does not have experience with rail projects, “if you look at what’s left of the project … really, what you’re looking at is a public works construction project,” Martyn said, consisting of the remaining portion of the fixed guideway, the stations in urban Honolulu, the Pearl Highlands transit center and the utilities relocation work through Dillingham Boulevard.
“All the guts for the core systems, as they call it, for the rail operations, is well at hand and in progress, and so what’s left is really just a public works construction project,” he said.
Both Martyn and Caldwell, when asked about Kahikina’s appointment Monday at an unrelated news conference, noted that Kahikina has been responsible for more than $5 billion in construction contracts dealing with sewage collection and treatment facilities as the city was forced to meet consent decrees tied to agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over discharge and other issues going back decades.
Also in her current job, Kahikina has been in the thick of a dispute between HART and the Caldwell administration over utilities relocation along Dillingham Boulevard. The administration has criticized the rail agency for failing to submit complete plans. HART officials say their engineers are working to satisfy the administration’s requirements.
“I think she’s exactly the right person we need at exactly the right time,” Caldwell said. Working under federal consent decrees means Kahikina has needed to meet deadlines. When you don’t, “you’re in big trouble with the federal government, and it can be yanked back into federal court — and she’s hit every deadline,” he said.
“She knows how to relocate utilities under our roads throughout this island … and she knows how to acquire property and that’s necessary to rebuild our sewer system,” he said. “Those are the two biggest issues at HART right now: utilities relocation and right-of-way acquisition.”
But Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, ripped Kahikina’s appointment, suggested it smacked of cronyism, and said some existing board members should be replaced.
“I am appalled that the board (did not) have the guts to disagree with Mayor Caldwell’s recommendation,” Inouye said in an email. Kahikina neither has the credentials to do the job, nor does she have the connections that Robbins has had with either the Federal Transit Administration or the U.S. Department of Transportation, Inouye said.
Further, “she absolutely has no experience and knowledge to be able to oversee the train and system testing” that’s about to take place with the project, Inouye said.
The single “no” vote for Kahikina’s appointment last week came from board member Kika Bukoski, who had argued strongly for Robbins to be retained.
Bukoksi said that the board exercised poor timing and judgment by removing Robbins at this critical juncture. He also believes there should have been more transparency by the board as it deliberated on the leadership issue, as well as better communications with Robbins.
However, he said, he believes the board needs to support whoever is the agency’s chief. “We firmly need to support our new CEO, and if Lori is the appointed one, then we need to get behind her and support her.”
University of Hawaii professor Panos Prevedouros, a civil engineer who twice ran unsuccessfully for Honolulu mayor on an anti-rail platform, said he’s willing to give Kahikina a chance.
“I like Lori a lot and I have worked with her a little bit on environmental issues and waste disposal,” Prevedouros said. While transportation may not be her strength, “I think she can manage big things, and that could be helpful. It may be a wise interim appointment for now.”
He said he viewed the appointment as one of HART’s better choices. “She’s very familiar with the city, with a lot of local companies, and she’s a graduate of UH engineering — she has a lot of things going for her.”
However, Prevedouros said, “I don’t know, this project has so many problems, nobody can perform miracles.”
Kahikina has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Hawaii and is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools.
A HART news release noted that Kahikina is the first female and the first Native Hawaiian to lead the agency.
Kahikina said that after restoring trust with the public, her second top priority will be tackling the perplexing issue of funding the rest of the project and dealing with the utilities relocation stalemate.
The $10 billion-plus project is over budget and its opening long delayed.
Kahikina said it’s clear to her that the FTA expects the project to go the entire 20-mile, 21-station route from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center as part of the Full Funding Grant Agreement that provided a $1.55 billion federal share of the project. The rest of the project is being funded largely through state excise and hotel room taxes, with a significantly smaller portion from city property taxes.
In related news, FTA Regional Administrator Raymond Tellis sent a letter to Caldwell on Monday officially informing the city it is extending for one year the availability of $250 million that had been scheduled to lapse at the end of the year.
Tellis noted that the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed Sunday by President Donald Trump allows for a one-year extension on the funding, part of the $755 million that the FTA has yet to provide from its agreed-upon $1.55 billion grant.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz first announced last week that language Hawaii’s congressional delegation inserted into one of the bills that make up the pandemic relief package keeps alive the city’s hopes of receiving the $250 million.
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