What Convinced Honolulu Rail Officials That Ansaldo Could Do The Job?

John Temple/Civil Beat

What a difference an "eyeball to eyeball" meeting can make.

The news about a key Honolulu rail contractor had been getting more and more disturbing. Corruption allegations. Financial troubles. And those revelations were just the latest to raise serious questions about an Italian company's ability to live up to its promise to deliver in Hawaii.

It got so bad that barely a week ago, Civil Beat reported officials would delay signing the $1.4 billion contract they wanted to award to design, build, operate and maintain the city's planned rail system.

And then came a meeting Friday, where the CEO of Ansaldo STS, Sergio De Luca, the man ultimately in charge of getting the work done on time and on budget, met with board members of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, and especially their chief questioner, First Hawaiian Bank CEO Don Horner.

When the session was over, board members said their tough questions had been asked and answered.

So what did they learn that changed the picture?

Essentially, they learned that Finmeccanica, the company that owns 40 percent of Ansaldo STS and 100 percent of Ansaldo Breda, the two companies that will together carry out the Honolulu project in a joint venture known as Ansaldo Honolulu, can't sink them. They have the financial resources and technical ability to stand on their own, no matter what happens.

As Horner put it after the meeting, it was clear that De Luca is a man of experience (an engineer who's worked on rail for 35 years) committed to hiring local people. (De Luca told the meeting that about 300 local people would be hired to operate the system.)

Never discount the importance of the personal touch. De Luca flew in from Italy for the meeting, the first time he's appeared in person before the board. The last time he talked to them it was by videoconference, and even that was considered a big deal.

Also, reference checks on 10 projects came back positive, with one exception, and even that one wasn't negative, just unsure.

And the financial data, examined by the bank president in tables presented by Ansaldo, seemed solid. No red flags were raised. In fact, one board member concluded that there's been a lot of "misinformation" out there about the contractor.

Horner, chair of the finance committee, made it clear that the final decision rests with HART Interim Executive Director Toru Hamayasu. And while Hamayasu, as is his style, was cautious about next steps, saying his staff would still need to review the latest submissions from Ansaldo, he said the contract could be signed as early as next week.

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