Grabauskas lands in familiar territory

In his time in Massachusetts, Dan Grabauskas earned a reputation as a Mr. Fix-It in Republican administrations. He was, at varying times, Registrar of Motor Vehicles, Secretary of Transportation, and MBTA general manager.

Given that those three agencies are arguably the most distrusted and disliked arms of state government, one has to question either Grabauskas’ life choices or sanity. Even an all-expenses paid relocation to Hawaii has apparently done little to sate Grabauskas’ appetite to be in the middle of a storm. He now has the dubious distinction to be the steward of one of the country’s most expensive public works projects ever after being a close witness to another, one that had an impact on his ability to do his job at the MBTA.

Grabauskas is the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, an indication of a rather cushy position since the island doesn’t really have rapid transit – yet. Grabauskas was hired in 2012 to manage the construction of a 20-mile rail line that will connect the two ends of the main island of Oahu. The original budget for the project was just over $5 billion, a hefty cost that is being borne largely by an excise tax surcharge with about $1.5 billion coming from the federal government.

But, shades of the Big Dig, that price tag has ballooned to more than $6.5 billion without the final phase of contracts being opened yet. Some say the cost is rapidly heading to more than $9 billion and has pushed back the opening to 2021, at least two years behind schedule.

Residents and tourists are angry about the construction cranes littering the roads, the elevated concrete tracks over once-pristine farmlands and vistas, the spiraling costs and delayed timelines, and the hours of backed-up traffic on the already-congested highways. Except for the farmlands, sound familiar?

The rising costs put the Hawaii rail project on track to be the most expensive per-capita public works project in the country. At the time, the Big Dig was the costliest public works project in the world and still stands as the most expensive in the country, depending on the cost calculations. Graubauskas did not have control of the Big Dig when he was transportation secretary — that still belonged to the Turnpike Authority at the time — but the choking debt could give Grabauskas a case of déjà vu, reminiscent of his days as the head of the cash-strapped T and the inability to keep the system in a state of good repair.

Like the Central Artery project, the groundwork for the Hawaii rail increases was laid well before Grabauskas came aboard but he still had to deal with the fallout when he went to the T. Grabauskas’ hands were tied at the MBTA because of debt the agency was forced to take on related to Big Dig mitigation. The Honolulu rail project will be brand new, but if anything goes wrong they will be hard-pressed to find the money to make things right because of the IOUs.

As of now, even though an overwhelming number of residents and officials think the rail project is more boondoggle than boon, the feeling is that so much money has already been spent that it makes no sense to turn back.

“People are very angry about it,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told the New York Times. “But we are now heading toward eight miles completed. It’s like we are pregnant — we can’t just stop and tear it down.”

Grabauskas, who was a senior fellow at MassINC for a brief time after he was forced out at the T, has shown he learned some valuable lessons in the hardscrabble world of Massachusetts politics. Last year, he opted to forego his contractual bonus as anger began to boil over the cost overruns and delays. But, he said, the sun will rise.

“They don’t get to ride it,” said Grabauskas, who makes about $260,000 plus expenses a year. They don’t get to see it. They have to deal with the traffic. This is kind of the darkest time for any new system that is coming into fruition.”


 (This story has been revised. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Grabauskas oversaw the Big Dig as secretary of transportation. The project was under the authority of the Turnpike Authority at the time and was not the responsibility of the Department of Transportation then.)


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