Hawaii Opinions

HART turned the Honolulu Rail into a Complete Disaster

Corruption, laziness, and incompetence, a tale as old as time for the Hawaii state government

For the uninformed, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) is an organization that was created by the Hawaii state government for the sole purpose of building a 20-mile, 21-station Honolulu rail system from Kapolei to Downtown Honolulu.

As of today, the Honolulu rail project is 11 years behind schedule and $8 billion over budget.

HART Offices

HART at work

There’s a show I watch called “Bar Rescue” where “bar expert” John Taffer travels around the United States and helps struggling bars by screaming at the owners until they fix their problems. He’s the Gordon Ramsey of cocktails.

The climax of each episode is when John performs a “Stress Test” on the bar after giving them about 6 hours of training. He invites 300 people into these dumps run by alcoholics, they inevitably fail, then he yells at everybody. The purpose is to highlight the bar’s shortcomings and embarrass them into changing.

Most owners humble themselves and step up but others respond with arrogance and remain in denial. They let their ego cloud their judgment, claim there’s nothing wrong (even though they reached out for help), and fight Taffer every step of the way.

The Honolulu rail is a stress test for the Hawaii state government and HART is the shitty bar owner. Clueless, arrogant, resistant to change, unable and unwilling to admit their failures, and too proud or too stupid to let out-of-state experts help them.

We already know the Hawaii state government is staffed with some of the most corrupt government officials in America who are more concerned with embezzling our taxes and saving face than actually doing their jobs.

What happens when you put them in charge of a multi-billion dollar light rail project? Complete and utter disaster.

“Good Projects Get Better, Bad Projects Get Worse”

Let’s take a step back for a minute and put things into context. Large public transportation projects like this are almost always over budget. It’s a sales strategy. Federal/state governments won’t fund your project if you’re 100% honest about how much it will cost. Politicians bank on the fact that the government can’t back out once construction begins. This has been the norm since the 1980s.

Cost overruns and year of completion - summary pt. 1

The Honolulu Rail is fast approaching #1 on this list, rivaling only the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) bullet train project which is currently at $77B.

What makes the Honolulu Rail worse than those projects? The way HART has handled these challenges. This excerpt from Construction Dive summarizes the contrasts between both projects:

What is different about the two projects is that both the chairman and executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) in 2016 resigned after allegations of mismanagement and after a city audit found inadequate records, as well as incomplete system and maintenance plans. While a Los Angeles Times investigation suggested the CHSRA had not been completely honest about the challenges and realities of the rail project, and there have been some staff changes, no one has been publicly called out yet regarding the project’s failures and fired or forced to resign. 

The CHSRA bullet train is massively over budget, but the CEO is still there, the contractors are still there, and they’re working together to fix things and overcome roadblocks as best as they can. It takes a leader or group of leaders with integrity and courage to admit they made mistakes and fix them.

HART takes the complete opposite approach. They’ve done everything possible to conceal their failures and shift the blame onto everybody but themselves. Like the shitty business owners on bar rescue, this group of so-called “experts” have been stealing money from the cash register and projecting their inadequacies and failures on the only people who can help them.

A Revolving Door of Scapegoats

At this point, being the CEO of HART might be one of the worst jobs in America. You’re basically signing up to be a scapegoat.

We started out with Dan Grabauskas (2014 – August 2016) who immediately recognized the project would cost at least 3x the estimates and was fired for being honest. He was replaced by interim CEO Mike Formby (August 2016 – January 2017) The man in charge of the abominable Hawaii DOT who was put in a position to fail and eventually did. He did such a bad job that he lost his job at the DOT too.

Then came Krishniah Murthy (January 2017 – July 2017)  An interim CEO that boasted 40+ years in the management of rail projects in Los Angeles. He lasted 2 years before saying “fuck that shit” and moving home with his family. Then there was Andrew Robbins,former Bombadier executive (the company that lost the contract to build the trains). He was a good leader who knew what he was doing so HART fired him and blamed him for the cost of the rail skyrocketing again.

He was replaced by Lori Kahikina, a former Honolulu environmental services director who has no experience with projects like this. She promptly fired half of HART’s staff, purging them of all the institutional knowledge and ensuring that, like her, absolutely nobody at HART knows how light rails work. I don’t think I could do a worse job if I tried.

HART Leadership is Corrupt

Have you seen a list of the HART board members? They have a combined 0 years of light rail building experience which, to me, is pretty important when you’re building a light rail. I mean the vice chair is a documentary filmmaker from the BBC for fucks sake.

As you go down the list of probably corrupt/definitely unqualified people, you’ll find a few former state officials, civil engineers, some lawyers, and a former intelligence analyst from the CIA. There’s also a bunch of lifers from the Hawaii Department of Transportation (DOT) AKA the people who can’t even fill potholes. None of these people should have been let near this project let alone be put in charge of it.

The chair of the board is congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. She’s back after a brief hiatus where she tried to steal $1M to be a “consultant” on the project. 

No, I’m not kidding. She didn’t take the contract because she got caught. Civil Beat unearthed some emails that showed HART officials discussing how they could award Hanabusa the contract without competition. “Smoking gun” type emails where they literally say they are going to give it to her. A massive conflict of interest at best, brazen corruption at worst.

Colleen claims that she had no knowledge of their actions or these emails which seems highly unlikely. And putting her back in charge of the budget after HART’s continued lack of transparency is like letting a heroin addict house sit for you while you go on vacation.

Colleen Hanabusa

PICTURED: Colleen Hanabusa trying to find out who’s stealing taxpayer money

After 11 Years, HART Still Has no Idea What They’re Doing

I guess they have no right to do so?

It’s a sad state of affairs when corruption is the second worst thing about your organization. It’d be fine if HART actually made progress. But they can’t do that either.

Back in 2019, HART was audited and then audited again because when you spend more than twice the amount of money you’re supposed to on a $5B construction project people tend to ask questions.

Here’s a quick summary of what both audits found:

  • HART is inexperienced and they hired other inexperienced engineers at budget prices leading to 641 change orders. on 69 of 96 contracts.
  • HART has not put a system in place to measure HDR employees’ performance. They pay an average of $42,000 per month to each employee and have no system to hold them accountable.
  • HART’ thought their “oversight of administrative affairs was limited to hiring, evaluating, and terminating the CEO”. They have no idea where their authority begins or ends, leading to a lack of project ownership and finger-pointing. 
  • HART ignored the warnings and advice from the Project Management Oversight which caused multiple costly change orders and delays.

The Honolulu Office of the City Auditor concluded that “cost overruns and schedule delays resulted from inexperienced HART managers and contractors who initiated and approved a plethora of change orders and amendments that increased project costs and contributed to schedule delays. We found insufficient justifications and documentation for many contract change orders and amendments.”

They also found that HART “lacked internal controls to minimize costs and prevent schedule delays,” and “Ignored or only partially addressed repeated PMOC warnings about internal controls and schedule impacts.”

Another important highlight is that HART doesn’t have any performance measures for any of its contractor employees. They didn’t define any metrics to measure progress or know if their employees are doing a good job. ON A MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR PROJECT. It’s unfathomable how stupid this is. How are you supposed to measure progress? Performance? Budgets? ANYTHING?

They refused to put any cost controls or performance metrics in place and had a complete lack of foresight when it came to delays and problems. It’s like they thought everything would go perfectly and when it didn’t, they had no backup plan.

I was friends with an engineer for the multi-national construction company who built the first two sections of the rail (East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium). I interviewed him for this piece and he gave me a first-hand account of Hart’s “leadership” style which let me know that these aren’t isolated mistakes, HART is a toxic organization from top to bottom.

First-hand Perspective of HART Management

Hawaii is a notoriously hard place to build things. On top of having the highest construction costs in the nation, there’s beaureaucratic red tape everywhere. It’s tough to navigate for an outside company, they need a high level of collaboration and assistance from the local government to build a 5-story apartment building. Good communication is imperative.

What they got from HART was the complete opposite. Almost immediately, they started scapegoating my friend’s company for every single issue they encountered. Unforeseen delays and problems were part of a conspiracy on the part of the outside company to delay the project in order to get more money. Showing a complete lack of understanding of how the contracts are structured and open contempt for the people they hired.

A quick list of other things HART did during his time there:

  • Held payments over the contractors head when delays occurred.
  • Refused to help solve problems.
  • Purposefully delayed the project so the company would be forced to pay liquidated damages.

During his tenure, my friend said his company had to coordinate with local utility companies to turn off electricity when they had cranes operating near power lines. This prevents “arcing” where the current may jump to the crane and kill a bunch of people while causing a localized blackout. They contacted HART to help coordinate this because they had no idea who to contact or how to even start the process. HART basically told them to pound sand.

Instead of making a few phone calls and helping at all, they said “we paid you to figure it out” even though they literally couldn’t proceed without HART’s assistance. This was the first time in history that this MULTI-NATIONAL COMPANY THAT IS RESPECTED WORLDWIDE had encountered this problem and it caused massive, unnecessary delays. It was so unprofessional that the company actually had to revise its contract language to account for this problem.

Now let’s contrast their approach with how smart people manage projects like this. My same friend now works on one of the most complex active construction projects in the United States. The project CEO has a PhD and is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the United States when it comes to public works projects. The first thing he said when the project started was “What does COMPANY NAME think the right move is here?” He did that because he realizes they are the experts and it’s in their best interest to do a good job.

It’s so incompetent that it seems like HART is trying to sabotage this project.

Politics Over Progress

As I mentioned before, lying is part of getting these rail projects approved. But most state governments stop lying once the project is underway. Continuing to lowball the numbers erodes public trust. Although I don’t think there is any trust left between the people of Hawaii and their government.

Former HART board member and owner of J. Uno & Associates, Joe Uno, told Hawaii Business Magazine, “One thing I’ve said a number of times, one of my observations, is that … this is not a transportation project, it’s not an engineering or construction project – it’s a political project,”

“So sometimes objective reality, like the actual cost of a segment of concrete, isn’t reported properly because it’s a political thing to say it’s $12 billion and it’s also a political thing to say it’s $8 billion.” He clarified, “It’s a political thing to say it’s $12 billion and ‘don’t worry we’ll find the money.’ To me, there’s not a whole lot of reality to that.”

Here’s another gem from the Hawaii Business article that’s even worse.

In 2019, the Honolulu City Council approved a resolution to have the city auditor’s office conduct an independent forensic audit of HART and the city’s procurement, contract awards and administration. According to the resolution, the council believed it could be possible that a “HART employee, consultant or contractor exploited internal control weaknesses to misappropriate public assets or commit other illegal actions and that these illegal actions may have contributed to the increase in the estimated costs of the rail project from $5.163 billion in 2012 to $9.181 billion in 2018.” Plans for this forensic audit were scrapped in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The way HART resists any type of oversight makes local police departments look like accounting firms. I love how the audit was scrapped “because of the pandemic”. The pandemic has absolutely no effect on performing an audit. But HART knew that. And they knew if they refused to put any controls or documentation into place it’d be easier to steal money from the project and avoid accountability.

Arrogance, Incompetence, and Corruption


Are we really surprised that the same government that gave us the Kealohas is at it again? The Hawaii state government is rotten to the core. This $13B boondoggle is the best thing that ever happened to them. They intentionally didn’t put any monitors or controls in place so they could funnel as much money as they could to their local friends for construction contracts, real estate deals, and God knows what else.

Federal investigators issued not one, not two, but three subpoenas to HART over various issues. These include their lack of controls and insufficient documentation as well as their acquisition of local real estate that they may have paid way too much money for.

The Feds are already understandably dragging their feet on approving the HART recovery plan, I wouldn’t be surprised if they opened a full-blown inquiry into what happened. If they do, everybody at HART is fucked and the rail may become a really expensive statue.

This project was supposed to help the people of Honolulu, to update the infrastructure so people aren’t spending 5 hours a day driving from Kapolei to downtown Honolulu. You sold this project to taxpayers and the Federal government just so you could slack off and find every opportunity to enrich yourselves.

The people of Hawaii are going to be paying for this useless rail in taxes, even the people who get no benefit from it, for decades to come. And in the face of abject failure and mockery, you keep fucking them over. You have no shame, no pride in your community, no pride in your work, you people are a disgrace. Your behavior is beyond disgusting.

Who will be responsible when the train wheels fall off or the concrete collapses and kills Hawaii citizens due to your lack of oversight? We all know you cowards won’t take the blame. I pray that the Federal government does an extensive audit that lands you all in court and hopefully in jail. It’s what you deserve.

Leave a Reply