HONOLULU (KHON2) — A price tag of $11 billion, a $3 billion budget gap and staff cuts at the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART). So why are pricey rail lobbyists being hired?

Always Investigating has the story.

HART is seeking both a Washington and a local lobbyist. This as HART prepares to post board agenda documents upping the “estimate at completion” price by another $1 billion, bringing it to $11 billion.

Heads are spinning at HART as the new interim CEO Lori Kahikina combs through every staff and consultant job, slashing many positions. The review and cutbacks will run through the end of March, 2021.

Here is how Kahikina explained the belt-tightening to KHON2: “It seems small compared to $2 billion to $3 billion (gap). But we need to streamline ourselves, tighten our belts, because how could I possibly think to ask whether it’s city, state, federal? It’s the taxpayers’ money. All of it is 100% taxpayer money.”

Two pricey RFPs — requests for proposal — are raising some eyebrows in the midst of cutbacks. In memos from HART to the Honolulu City Council, the Rail Authority says it may spend in excess of $1 million on a federal government liaison, something they’ve had before, and another $1 million on a local version. That local liaison is a new role.

HART’s head of government relations and community involvement, former councilmember Joey Manahan, says HART will not likely spend $1 million each.

“Let me just clarify, the RFPs are going to be a total cost for both positions,” Manahan said. “What we’re going to ask the board to approve through a reclassification within the existing budget, is $850,000 for both of those contracted positions, plus another $200,000 for any additional consulting services that we may have to incur for example, to create or to hire a special consultant to create a recovery plan.”

HART expects the “estimate at completion” to jump possibly past $11 billion — a $3 billion dollar gap — and will formally inform the board of its tally next week, hoping to work in some cost savings to the projection from big changes like streamlining the Dillingham utility relocation and shifting a portion of the guideway mauka near Honolulu Community College.

Federal authorities will not release another penny toward the grant until an approved recovery plan is re-written. Another reason, HART says, the federal liaison RFP is especially important

“Under former director and CEO Andy Robbins, that that position was cut,” Manahan said, “and as a result, unfortunately — we’re finding this out in our meetings with the congressional delegation and their staff — that the position was absolutely necessary for them and helpful and beneficial to the project.”

“I did work with a DC lobbyist on rail when I first got elected, and he was excellent,” Honolulu City Council Chairman Tommy Waters said.

The other consultant gig would focus on State and County relationships.

“As far as the state lobbyist is concerned, well, each and every one of us here the council, they’re lobbying on behalf of funding for rail at the legislature,” Waters said. “HART really should be doing that themselves through our new executive director, she really should be down there lobbying.”

Always Investigating asked HART: Why does it need another highly paid outside consultant just to talk to people literally across the street?

“I just want to be clear that this was a board initiative,” Manahan said. “Last year unfortunately HART wasn’t providing good responses to a lot of the questions that were being asked, and unfortunately, that did strain the relationships, not just with the city council, but with the state legislature. The year before that, if you recall, we went in there (state legislature) asking for an extension, so the board was kind of anticipating that relationships would have to be repaired.”

“I don’t feel the strain,” Waters said. “I’m happy to work with my counterparts over at the legislature. As a former legislator myself, I like to think that I have a good relationship with the folks over there. But again, it comes down to how much money is it going to be and what are we spending it on? We’re talking about $1 million. to me that’s way too much money, way too much money to mediate strain.”

A cost estimate report using $11 billion as a placeholder will be posted online on Friday, March 12, for next week’s HART board agenda. The RFPs have a due date of Thursday, April 1.

Waters says he will press HART for answers when the board comes to the council with a bond float and their upcoming budget.