New HART CEO taking on rail at high-stakes stage for lower pay

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Honolulu Rapid Rail Authority (HART) has a new CEO, Lori Kahikina, taking the helm at a crossroads for the final leg of the project. She has just one year to prove whether she can turn the troubled agency around.

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HART is calling the latest CEO an “interim,” but not in the same way that they have had temps while the board recruited a permanent filler. The job is Kahikina’s to keep or lose — depending on how things go during the next 365 days.

Kahikina is a familiar face from the county administration, heading up the city’s Environmental Services Department (ENV) for the past eight years and the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) before that.

“I’m not a transportation expert,” she said, “but just give me the chance to prove myself, that’s all I ask.”

Kahikina will have a year before HART decides if they will keep her on longer, and they are not recruiting in the meantime. Some were quick to slam HART’s pick because Kahikina does not have mass-transit experience. Others, including incoming Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi, have no doubts about a newcomer.

“I would simply tell you I’ve never been mayor before. I’m a big believer in this stuff here,” Blangiardi said. “It’s not like she’s not knowledgeable. She brings tremendous engineering skills and prowess in management skills, and a lot of other things. Her track record for building stuff on time, on budget, etcetera, is impeccable.”

Kahikiha has made sure multibillions-worth of key infrastructure — above and underground — has been built in her past roles. She holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Hawaii.

“If you look at those different elements of what remains, it is largely construction work,” said HART Board Chairman Tobias Martyn. “We were heartened by the fact that she had all this public-works project experience having worked at ENV and other city departments and engaged in pretty large public-works-type construction projects.”

Besides spending billions on the project, HART has spent millions on series of CEOs who so far have all ended where they started: staring down escalating costs, dwindling resources, a raft of federal and local funding pitfalls, mounting distrust over a reliable total price-tag, when it will start and how far it will really go.

“What makes me think that I’m not going to fall into the same problems? I probably will. So I’m just going to take it day by day and try to build that trust,” Kahikina said. “I think with that trust and the attitude of asking for help from everyone else, whether it’s the utilities, the city departments, the state, I think if we can work together, I think we’ll be successful together.”

HART’s first CEO Dan Grabauskas started back in 2012 at nearly $300,000 in wages and perks. Andy Robbins started at nearly $400,000. Krishniah Murthy, who served a year in between them, got nearly $500,000, and there were bonuses for all. As for Kahikina — HART’s first Native Hawaiian woman in the role — she is getting $275,000. Always Investigating asked the board chair to explain the discrepancy.

“It’s a good question, Gina,” Martyn said, “and I think the board talked a lot about this. In the end, we wanted to create enough of an impression on her that we value her and all that she brings to the job and the fresh start that she’ll represent, but also acknowledging the fact that we’re in what we call this interim period. Of course, if, if everything goes as we expect, then we’ll be having another conversation about her compensation at the end of her one-year contract, which will probably bring her more into alignment with what previous directors have been paid.”

The mayor does not set HART pay or vote on hires, but KHON2 asked the incoming mayor his perspective on the pay issue.

“When the time comes and it’s appropriate, I will advocate if I have that voice in this situation, I will definitely advocate for fairness,” Blangiardi said. “This is the third decade of the 21st century. That’s where we are this moment in time, and i want everything that we do with the city and every other aspect to reflect that.”

Kahikina herself tells KHON2 she has no problem with the compensation

“The pay is too much to me,” Kahikina said. “I’m civil servant. I’m used to the city pay, and this is an ungodly amount of money. So I’m not offended at all that I’ve been paid less than my predecessors. it’s just it’s too much money to me, so I’m actually flattered.”

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