HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lori Kahikina, who has served as the city’s director of Environmental Services for eight years, was named Monday as the interim CEO of the problem-plagued rail project.
Kahikina has no rail or transportation experience. But at Environmental Services, she oversaw $5.2 billion in sewer rebuilding projects, including the massive tunnel connecting Kailua and Kaneohe.
In a news conference Monday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell called Kahikina “exactly the right person we need at exactly the right time.”
“She’s exactly the person that’s able to address these challenges almost better than anyone else,” Caldwell said.
“The actually construction of rail is like building a bridge repeatedly above grade and I think she will be able to address all of the challenges and I think she will prove herself.”
However, her tenure as the head city Environmental Services was also marked by a number of well-publicized sewage spills, such as a half-million gallon spill in 2015 that was caused by a broken pump and employee errors and a 200,000-gallon leak at Ko Olina in November 2016.
Given the number of spills during her tenure, environmental activist Carroll Cox said she’s not qualified to run HART.
“It would be a travesty if Lori Kahikina was appointed to have anything to do with HART or anything to do in a CEO capacity,” Cox said.
Kahikina takes over the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation after former CEO Andy Robbins’ contract was not renewed. Robbins had earned $317,000 a year. She will earn $275,000 a year as interim CEO.
In selecting Kahikina, the rail authority’s board did not use an executive search firm to screen for qualified candidates nor did it not name her publicly when it voted her in as Robbins’ replacement.
“I think the optics are bad on this. What taxpayers want is that the person running HART knows what they’re doing, that they were selected in a fair way that had nothing to do with politics,” said Colin Moore, Hawaii News Now’s political analyst and a political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
HART’s chair Toby Martyn did not make himself available to Hawaii News Now for an interview.
Kahikina has also clashed with HART staff over relocating utilities on Dillingham Boulevard.
After HART had asked for a variance to place overhead electrical lines underground near sewer lines earlier this year, she responded in an email:
“I have been pretty clear that no variances will be granted. If you plan on presenting what options were presented and why they won’t work and you’re planning on still asking for variances please don’t waste my, (Board of Water Supply Manager Ernie Lau) or the Managing Director’s time,” she wrote.
Her appointment is effective New Year’s Day.
Kahikina has a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of Hawaii and is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools. She is the first woman and the first Native Hawaiian to lead HART.
HART is getting new leadership as the rail project enters its most problematic phase: Tackling construction through the urban core, where the relocation of utilities has proven a significant headache.
Already, the project has been delayed and its price tag inflated.
And earlier this year, the long-awaited public-private partnership to build the final phase of the rail project and oversee its operation was canceled because bids came in well over what they were expected to.
This story will be updated.