HART awards new contract to DC lobbying firm

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Dec 24 2013 06:39:26 AM HST
Updated On: Oct 16 2013 08:04:14 PM HST

Honolulu's rail project is banking on a very powerful lobbyist.

HONOLULU -

Lobbying has become a dirty word among U.S. voters, but the head of Honolulu's transit authority says beltway lobbyist Denis Dwyer is worth his weight in gold.

Click here to see Andrew Pereira's report.

"From my experience in terms of what we're paying and what we're getting, it's a good deal for us," said Dan Grabauskas, executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART.

From April 2007 through July 2013, Dwyer's firm Williams & Jensen has been paid $1.43 million by HART. On its website, the company describes Dwyer "as one of the 'Hottest Appropriations Lobbyists' in Washington, D.C.

Dwyer's services are so valued by the transit authority that HART awarded a new contract to Williams & Jensen in July. The agreement spans three years at a cost of $900,000.

Grabauskas says Dwyer serves as the point man in D.C. for the $5.3 billion rail project, which hopes to complete construction by March of 2019.

"He's able to conduct meetings there and act on our behalf," Grabauskas explained. "It's a long way to go and it's really not cost effective for us to go there on a regular basis."

Dwyer is no stranger to Hawaii, having lobbied on behalf of mass transit under former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. Dwyer has also donated to the political campaigns of Neil Abercrombie, Mufi Hannemann and Dan Inouye, according to the Federal Election Commission.

However, critics of the rail project question the expensive lobbying effort, since the Federal Transit Administration has already awarded Honolulu a full funding grant agreement for the elevated rail line worth $1.55 billion.

"I don't see the point of lobbying when they've already been given a commitment for the money in the future," said Cliff Slater, who has a federal lawsuit pending against the rail project. "When you get a full funding grant agreement, they never let you get started and then cut you off when you're in midstream. I mean it just never happens."

Under the new contract signed with HART, Dwyer is responsible for advocating on behalf of the rail project with various individuals and agencies. The contract notes the following:

"The consultant will serve as HART's liaison in Washington, D.C., with Hawaii's Congressional Delegation and appropriate Federal agencies. The consultant will provide coordination, counsel, and information to HART and advise and represent HART with respect to federal transportation policy, legislation, regulation, and federal funding opportunities."

Although the city has secured a full funding grant agreement with the FTA, Grabauskas says the amount of federal fiscal year appropriations cannot be guaranteed. Under the FFGA, the city receives an annual allotment of funds until the $1.55 billion is paid in full. The less money appropriated every year, means borrowing costs for the rail project could escalate.

"We have to fight every year for the appropriation. So, it's an effort that (Dwyer) helps us to coordinate," said Grabauskas. "When it's 3 o'clock in the morning here, we have to have somebody there, or we may end up on the cutting room floor of some committee that's going to mean millions of dollars lost to Hawaii."

Still, Slater believes he has a more plausible explanation for the lobbying effort on behalf of rail transit. Like many opponents of the project, he believes it will rack up massive cost overruns that could push Honolulu to the brink of bankruptcy.

"If (Grabauskas) anticipates cost overruns, now that's a whole different deal," said Slater. "Now there has to be a lot of tap dancing around to convince the federal government to bring in some more money, and that's going to be difficult."

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