HART wants deeper look into critical rail construction problems

Always Investigating

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s board of directors wants a more thorough investigation of rail components — and answers about money — in the wake of several quality and safety-related flaws Always Investigating revealed earlier this year.

The board chair also shared details from the latest cost estimates for the full project, which now stand at $8.6 billion, up from $8.3 billion earlier this summer. The estimate also puts the finish date near December 2025, a pushback from 2024 at last budget.

We were first to report several tendons that hold the segments together had snapped, and that shims to level the track have begun to crack already. The mounting flaws pose more than just construction-related problems. Both the tendon system and the shims will have to be closely watched, maintained and replaced as needed for the life of the line.

We’ve been following serious quality issues — failing tendons, the use of leveling shims questioned and now cracking by the thousands. On Thursday, HART’s board got an in-depth look at both from HART’s engineering and construction team.

“That tells me there’s something wrong with the rail, the pouring of that guideway, if we’ve got to have all these alternatives,” chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa said.

Always Investigating has been documenting for months the red flags raised by the federal oversight contractor, and insider whistleblowers, on these potentially costly problems for both HART and contractor Kiewit.

“Is there any chance that Kiewit is going to come back with a change order on HART and say somehow it’s HART’s fault?” Hanabusa asked.

“What we’ve been trying to do is put it squarely in their court,” explained HART design manager Taka Kimura, “to say ‘This is a problem you’re experiencing and it’s your responsibility to remedy it.’”

Issue 1: The tendons, a wire and anchor system tugging the spans into place. Three have already had fractured strands, another three were swapped out for corroded anchors, and another six over grout that was too soft.

Kiewit has tapped all tendons with a hammer to judge by sound if they seem okay, but fewer than 60 anchors out of nearly 1,600 have been checked — a sample size forensic engineers, HART, and the contractor are going back and forth on.

“Kiewit’s position is this is sufficient? That we should be assured that looking at 57 anchors that it’s fine?” Hanabusa asked.

“We did the same type of math,” Kimura said, “and we’re questioning the validity of their plan.”

Regarding the tendons, Kiewit told Always Investigating in a statement: “During the course of Kiewit’s quality control process we closely examine all facets of our work. During the examination of tendons we found a few of the strands within three tendons had fractured prior to grouting. Kiewit investigated the issue closely, incorporated corrective measures and replaced all problem tendons to ensure the work is in compliance with the contract.”

Issue 2: The height variances along the whole rail line so far being shimmed back to level with plastic pieces, a method questioned from the get-go. They’re a cheaper substitute than a concrete re-leveling layer called a plinth.

Now more than 2,100 shims are showing cracks. More than 100,000 will be needed along the built line so far, and about half are already in place.

Kiewit told KHON2 in a statement, “Kiewit is currently testing all the shim material provided to the project to ensure they meet the requirements of the contract.”

HART wants to know, beyond just materials, could the problem be how they’ve been put in, a problem from torqueing or some other as-yet-unknown cause?

“Do you know how much it costs if the 165,000 pieces are to be replaced?” Hanabusa asked. “We know they’re failing, and we don’t even have load on it yet.”

“Replacement and inspection of shims is going to be an ongoing program,” said Kai Nani Kraut, HART construction manager. “When we get to the cost issue you referred to, that’s under evaluation.”

So is the cost of ongoing inspection and maintenance of tendons and anchors.

“Every other year, somebody has to go through and look at the exterior of the box, the interior of the box, look for cracks, if they are noted, recorded and monitored,” Kimura said. “Every bridge needs to be, and this bridge is no exception.”

And what if a problem is found or worse, goes overlooked?

“Let’s say a tendon fails and we’re not aware of it,” said board member Terrence Lee. “What is the safety risk of that?”

“What they (Kiewit) were telling us is you wouldn’t get a failure of the whole span,” Kimura said. “You would see some distress and you would know you need to close down that span and replace it.”

HART does not yet know the cost of replacing a tendon.

“When the train starts running, what is the cost to the people of removing the tendon? What’s the down time, how long is it going to take?” Hanabusa asked. “Of course we have the consideration of public confidence in the system. Do you have any idea what it would mean? We’d have to shut down the system. We can’t just remove one tendon and have the train keep going.”

“Correct,” Kimura said. “It would be much more difficult once system is up and running.”

So will the shims continue to be used on the next phase of the rail guideway? Kiewit isn’t building beyond the first two segments, and a new contractor is taking over. We’ll keep track of the issues and follow up.

Also at the board meeting Thursday, interim CEO Mike Formby told the board they are wrapping up a midterm report to give the Federal Transit Administration by early next week on how the city plans to finish rail.

Formby said it will cover where they might find more revenue to build rail all the way to Ala Moana, and a backup plan on how far just the current budget will get the train.

HART officials hope a solid interim plan to the FTA might help get the deadline for a final financial plan pushed into 2017, instead of year-end.

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