February 25, 2019; Honolulu Civil Beat
It started out as a wonderful idea: create a largely above-ground rapid transit system connecting the various parts of one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) was chartered in 2011 to oversee all aspects of the rail system, which was intended to alleviate horrific traffic. Now, a series of events has led to HART being the subject of a federal grand jury and hit with a subpoena for documents. So, what happened, and why does HART leadership say it won’t be so easy to hand over the requested documents?
In 2008, a plan for rapid transit was put in front of voters, who approved a tax surcharge that would fund the project along with $1.55 billion from the federal government. The original estimates in 2006 were that the entire project would cost $4 billion. Now, several years behind schedule, the project is estimated to cost at least $9.2 billion.
HART was created as a “semi-autonomous public transit authority“ with a board of 10 people overseeing operations. The mayor of Honolulu appoints three board directors, the City Council another three, each of the city and state transportation directors are represented, and a tenth is a community member selected by the rest of the board.
A state audit conducted in 2016 suggests that the project had already risen far beyond original cost estimates, and a rail line intended to be fully operational by 2019 is now not expected until 2025. The management letter in that report clearly states there are major concerns about the oversight of the project, its financial management, and the planning for construction and operational concerns in the future. According to one report, while still in draft form, this audit was discussed and shortly afterward there were calls to have HART’s board chair and executive director resign. The board chair did so.
Fast-forward two years later, and another audit was conducted, led by Hawaii State Auditor Les Kondo. Kondo’s office requested more than 30,000 documents and complained that what they received was redacted to the point of being incomprehensible. The findings in this audit are even more damning that the earlier one. This time, there is suggestion that employees of a private engineering firm may have been given key roles within HART, including positions that would oversee budget, design, and construction of the project. It is estimated that the amount paid to HDR Engineering would be the equivalent of $506,000 for each worker involved. Of course, at this point, the City Council became anxious and called for further investigation into the issues.
This brings us to the current circumstances and the federal grand jury looking into the matter. The subpoena is in fact the third the grand jury has issued. The first demanded documents relating to contracts and other issues, including correspondence with the Federal Transit Authority. The second was for documents relating to HART’s self-reported possible overpayment to property owners along the proposed line.
This third grand jury subpoena is for all of the minutes of all HART Board meetings, including ones that were held in closed session. HART’s board chair is saying it may not be possible to offer all of the minutes in unredacted form, and that they will have to confer with the city’s Corporate Counsel to see what can be released. As a clarification, in case you were wondering, HART’s board meetings probably are subject to the state’s sunshine laws, but the laws do allow closed executive sessions in some rare circumstances. The law also states that “minutes of executive meetings may be withheld so long as their publication would defeat the lawful purpose of the executive meeting, but no longer.”
In some ways, the HART board is extremely transparent, including posting a host of governance related documents in easily accessible formats on their website. In others, including their dealings with the auditor and the grand jury, that transparency is nearly absent. Now, there are calls for the project to be paused while the grand jury completes its investigation to determine if there has been any fraud. The long, winding road of this project is not close to being run.—Rob Meiksins