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HART's Lori Kahikina Talks Rail Progress, Calls Dillingham Utilities a 'Spaghetti Noodle Mess'

The first train car from the platform view at the Rail Operations Center.
Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation
The first train car from the platform view at the Rail Operations Center.

The Honolulu rail project, planned to stretch from Kapolei to Ala Moana, is moving toward the critical final leg through Honolulu's urban core. Lori Kahikina, an engineer by training, was hired six months ago to take over from Andrew Robbins as head of the project. Kahikina has worked as the city's Director of the Department of Design and Construction and as Director of Environmental Services.

Now six months into her position as interim Executive Director and CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, Kahikina shared the latest developments about the Honolulu rail. Below are excerpts from Kahikina's interview with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, edited for length and clarity.

On receiving criticism when she was hired

KAHIKINA: There was criticism in the beginning because I don't have transit experience. But I did ask, just give me a chance to see if I can help make a positive difference and what experience I'm bringing from ENV (Honolulu's Department of Environmental Services). As you mentioned, I have a lot of construction contracts, infrastructure relocation experience that we had to do for ENV. Our program was massive. It was a $5 billion program — consent decree. And all of our hundreds of deadlines, we were on time, on budget. That's what experience I'd like to bring to HART.

On HART's progress over the last six months

KAHIKINA: So what we have accomplished within the six months, which I am very proud of — I didn't realize how big of a deal it was until I had a meeting last week with my staff and two of our big consultants — we were able to finish the designs in areas two through six, Iwilei to Ala Moana, on the utility designs within six months, and HART's been trying to do that for 10 years. We got all of the designs done. We still need to do Dillingham. But for areas two through six, 100% designs done, and all of the packages but four have been approved by the city. We're expecting this week to have the last city department approve those last packages. So I am proud of the team for doing that. The consultants and our staff were sharing, "You don't understand what a morale builder this is."

People work so hard to get things done. My relationships with the city: the approval process went much quicker than anticipated. Our consultants were budgeting three to six months and approvals came within two weeks, sometimes even two days. So the city departments and even the third party utilities have been phenomenal, very supportive of us.

On restructuring some employees and quality assurance/quality control

KAHIKINA: So when we talked to our project management oversight consultant, they're hired by the Federal Transit Authority, they're our watchdogs. And when I questioned them, "What exactly do you feel is the QA/QC responsibility?" They forwarded me to a document that the FTA put out and they said, "Please take a look at this."

But even they stressed that the QA/QC that we had was not as effective as it could be. It wasn't bringing the quality control, quality assurance that we needed. I mean, it's been highly publicized, the wheel-rail interface, the frog issue—that wasn't identified, we have other issues that were not identified. So we need to step up that group. So we are interviewing some candidates right now, in fact, we have one today. Hopefully, we find someone that understands the FTA requirements and can help us to elevate that section of our company.

On the problem with the wheels and the track crossings, or "frogs"

KAHIKINA: We did hire a third-party consultant, TTCI (Colorado-based Transportation Technology Center, Inc.), and they're doing their analysis right now on the maximum speed we can do through the double crossovers, what we refer to as the "frogs," and their report comes back in August. Now if their report comes back negative, that we can only go let's say 20 miles per hour through the frogs, that's not ideal for us.

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

So more than likely, we will have to tear out those frogs, manufacture new ones on the mainland, and bring them here and replace them. That could take from a year to two years. So that's a delay on what people have been calling the interim opening, all the way up to the stadium. If, however, their analysis comes back positive that we're good to go 40 to 50 miles per hour, then we're working closely with Hitachi to replace the wheels and then we could do our testing. We're thinking we can get the trial running started maybe early next year. And if there are 90 days of no glitches, we can hand this over to the city, second quarter of next year, maybe the April, May timeframe.

We still need to negotiate (the finances) with Hitachi. We need to look at the contract documents: who was responsible for what? So that hasn't been determined. I'm trying to find the technical solution first. Get that done and then we'll work out the commercial side after that.

On construction progress of the airport leg

KAHIKINA: The airport leg is about 84% complete. They were having issues and the lagoon area, Waiwai Loop, we're working with HECO (Hawaiian Electric Co.) diligently because there are requirements that we need to meet to satisfy their needs. That's why if you look, there's a gap in the columns and the guideway right in that area. So we're hoping we can get some of those things taken care of shortly with HECO. They have been terrific to try to find scenarios, ways to help us out. The stations, unfortunately, that's a little bit behind. The (airport) stations are maybe each about 34% complete. The latest schedule from STG (Shimmick/Traylor/Granite) has it for the third quarter of next year to be complete.

On shifting the rail to the mauka side of Dillingham Boulevard

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

KAHIKINA: As I mentioned earlier, in areas two through six the utilities are complete. Dillingham is area one and it's a spaghetti noodle mess under there, the utilities are all over the place, it is tight. We did make the decision to do the mauka shift where the guideway itself is going to move to the mauka side of Dillingham. So we won't have to put columns within Dillingham and have to relocate those utilities. We are also working with HECO so that we don't have to underground their major 138 kV line on the makai side. We still need to do the mauka side. And as you mentioned, the properties that are going to be affected are owned by Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii and both entities have been so terrific, just helping us out as best they can. HCC (Honolulu Community College) has valid concerns about noise and vibration because we'll be that much closer to existing buildings. So we are preparing a study to do noise and vibration so that we can help mitigate any of their concerns. But the mauka shift, the Dillingham utility relocation design package will not be done until June of next year. But I'm working very closely with our design consultant AECOM to see if they can expedite that and get that done by the end of this year, but it's going to be tight.

On criticisms directed at HART about emails regarding Colleen Hanabusa

KAHIKINA: We did check with the Department of the Corporation Counsel and there was no procurement violation, according to them. The HART board knew what skill set they wanted. There were some issues with quorum and voting, extension of the GET/TAT (General Excise Tax/Transient Accommodations Tax), and releasing the federal funds. So there were specific things that they needed done, and they knew what the skill set was. So when the procurement was put together, that's what they were honing in on. Other than that, I prefer not to comment.

This story aired on The Conversation on June 28, 2021. To find more HPR coverage of the Honolulu rail, click here.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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