Move to kill vanpools panics riders
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer
State lawmakers may kill a popular vanpool program that serves more than 1,000 commuters each day in Hawai'i.
Sen. Transportation Committee Chairman Cal Kawamoto said the 8-year-old program should be turned over to county governments or eliminated. At his request, senators last week deleted from the budget a request for $250,000 for the program.
"Without it we're dead," said Vicki Harris, who heads the Vanpool Hawai'i program. "Our riders are pretty panicked. Most of them (including several hundred who commute from Hilo to Waikoloa on the Big Island) don't have any other way of getting to work."
Using about $2.4 million in federal money, the program makes new vans available free to drivers who volunteer to share the workday commute with an average of six other riders who pay a monthly fee.
The vans are especially important on Neighbor Islands and areas of O'ahu not well served by public transportation, Harris said.
"I don't know what I'd do if they kill this program," said Steve Lombard, who drives a van with four or five passengers from La'ie to Halawa, where he is a social worker. "I can't afford a car, and the bus doesn't run at 4 a.m., when I need to leave for work."
The state never intended to run the program permanently, Kawamoto said.
"It started as a 3-year demonstration program, and then the city was supposed to take over operation of the program," he said.
"It's been eight years now, and the city isn't really interested in running it," said Kawamoto, D-19th (Waipahu, Pearl City).
Kawamoto also was critical of the program for replacing some vans with "gas-guzzling sports-utility vehicles" with tinted windows that obscure the number of riders inside, and for failing to increase the amount that riders pay to keep the program operating.
"Bus riders have been asked to pick up an increasing share of the cost of their rides, but vanpool riders are paying the same rates they did eight years ago," he said.
Supporters say vanpools have benefits that go far beyond the drivers and riders, such as reducing parking and traffic congestion for other drivers, conserving fuel and reducing air pollution at a relatively small cost to Hawai'i taxpayers.
House and Senate negotiators are expected to decide the fate of the program's financing in conference committee meetings this week.
"It's the only ride-sharing program we have in the state besides the bus," Harris said. "The program has continued to grow every year. It would be very short-sighted to stop it now."