Audit: Consultants hold key jobs in Honolulu rail agency

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By AUDREY McAVOY

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — Private consultants hold key senior positions inside the Honolulu agency building the city’s rail line, yet the agency fails to consistently monitor their performance, the state auditor’s second report on the enormously over-budget rail line said Tuesday.

Those jobs include project director, who is responsible for the rail line’s design, construction and project budget. Another is the position responsible for overseeing all cost estimates and cost management.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation paid HDR Engineering Inc. about $9.6 million last year for the services of 19 employees in these jobs. That works out to $42,105 per month per employee or $505,260 a year for each worker.

HDR employees are paid and evaluated by their employer, not HART, the report said, and HDR doesn’t share employee evaluations with the agency. HDR employees oversee the work of other HDR employees as well as other consultants working for other private companies.

This leads to “consultants managing consultants,” the report said. The agency, meanwhile, fails to consistently follow through and monitor HDR and HDR’s employees, it said.

“The buck all too often stops at the consultant, not HART,” the report said.

The auditor said HART explained that it hires consultants because it’s unable to find highly qualified candidates willing to accept a city salary. It also doesn’t want to hire workers and then have to terminate them once the rail line is built, the report said.

HART CEO Andrew Robbins, in a letter to the auditor, said the agency agrees its performance oversight and evaluation need to be strengthened. HART will replace consultants with city staff wherever possible, but the needs of the project must be considered, he said.

HDR told the auditor that “at no point” has it been considered by HART or others as “a cause of cost or schedule increases.”

The Hawaii State Auditor plans to issue two more reports on the troubled rail line, for which estimated costs ballooned to $9.2 billion last year from $5.1 billion in 2012.

The first report published last week found city officials prematurely awarded contracts for the rail line a decade ago to minimize public criticism and show the project was moving along, but this practice dramatically swelled costs as plans changed.

The state Legislature ordered the audit after it approved new taxes to cover the rail line’s budget deficit.