How a leadership shakeup affects key rail projects, recovery plan

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Dan Grabauskas’ resignation as Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s executive director and CEO comes in the midst of a lot of turmoil for the rail project, and while a recovery plan is being prepared for the federal government.

Priorities could shift big-time with HART under new leadership.

One of the first orders of business is an all-hands-on-deck meeting just 11 days away with the Federal Transit Administration.

Interim HART boss Mike Formby will be in San Francisco for a landmark meeting with the feds at month’s end, Aug. 29 and 30, and we’re told others are also heading there: Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu City Council chairman Ernie Martin, FTA’s top brass from D.C. and the western region, even HART senior staff and board representatives.

“That’s a very affirmative statement about everyone’s commitment to this project,” said HART chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa. “Now we know what has to happen, because let’s not forget, the main thing we’ve got to take care of is the recovery plan and the agreement with the FTA as to how HART and the City and County of Honolulu perform under the full funding grant agreement, so we can secure the continued funding from the federal government as well.”

It’s a recovery plan with a hard-and-fast end-of-year deadline to tell the feds how much of the project the city can build with the resources in hand, not up in the air or pending any extra local tax extensions or federal giving. All this comes after chronic costly change orders in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and while a nearly $900 million airport section contract is pending signature. That’s a deal awarded despite federal oversight advice to hold off, and to a bidder whose estimate some call unrealistically low – other bids were as high as $1.5 billion.

Among Grabauskas’s last tasks before resigning was answering Martin’s questions about the disparity of cost estimates and doubts about whether the final tab will really be the bid price, with the outgoing CEO pledging this time would be different.

Always Investigating asked Hanabusa if the board discussed whether Formby plans to take any immediate different positions with respect to any of the pending contracts, or any of the things that are out on the table now that might cause some trouble down the road with construction.

“I think that what we need to do first and foremost is to look at the recovery plan,” Hanabusa said. “The first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to get with the FTA and agree to what this project is going to look like, given the constraints of the funding, which is what they told us, and/or whether there are different options that they will consider. That’s what we have to hopefully get a better feel at the end of this month.”

Always Investigating asked, will all that be able to happen in time to come before the airport contract is finalized?

“Hopefully yes,” Hanabusa said, “and that’s the reason why we’re insisting the senior staff members are also part of that meeting.”

We asked if ideas others have floated will be talked about in San Francisco, such as redefining the project’s minimum operating segment to Middle Street, then applying right away for more federal money for an extension to Ala Moana or beyond.

Hanabusa says they are likely to be discussed, but she thinks will be a tough sell to the feds.

We’ll follow up on how much closer they get to a recovery plan at that summit.

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