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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 3, 2003

Transportation firms want city partnership

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Hawai'i's private transportation companies — the people who run tour buses, taxis and trolleys — want to play a bigger role in solving the state's traffic congestion.

Owners of private transportation companies, including taxi and trolley businesses, want to play a bigger role in solving traffic congestion.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Properly used, the companies could provide an affordable alternative to cars and public transportation, they say. They wonder why the government hasn't made a bigger effort to include them in what's becoming one of the most important public policy discussions in recent years.

"The private companies have a great supply of vehicles — limousines, vans, taxis, trolleys and motorcoaches — that go unused most of the time," said Katsumi Tanaka, chairman of E Noa Tours. "We're capable of providing many rides for local residents. We'd definitely like to be a bigger part of the whole transportation picture."

Public-private partnerships in transportation are used nationwide and sometimes in Honolulu, but aren't universally successful, officials said. In Hawai'i, the results of such experiments have proven uneven because of daily or seasonal demands, which affect the availability of vehicles normally reserved for tourists.

"There is a role for the private companies, but in the past the reliability of the tour companies couldn't be counted on," said Darrlyn Bunda, a former City Council member who helped develop a private subsidized bus and trolley service for Mililani residents.

In the past few years, private transportation leaders have been among the most vocal critics of the city's proposed Bus Rapid Transit plan, which they see as unfairly competing with their own services, especially in Waikiki where a vastly improved bus service could lure more tourists into public transit.

The businesses insist they support public transit, including most aspects of the BRT, but worry about the effect it will have on their own bottom line. Federal public transportation policy mandates that government transportation initiatives consider and minimize negative effects on private transportation, officials say.

"Don't forget, we are licensed by the Public Utilities Commission to operate in the public interest, but in general the government tends to ignore the function we already provide and fails to take us into account for the future," said Ron Howard, president of Paradise Cruises and Superstar Hawai'i Transit. "No one has taken the time to look with a practical eye at how we could help."

Proponents say the private vehicles could be used in a number of ways:

  • Taxis might serve as small shuttles in remote neighborhoods and valley areas where bus service is infrequent. Subsidized taxi services might also be used to supplement the city-run Handi-Van service for some disabled residents.

    "The buses are noisy, empty and tear up the roads in places like Pacific Heights or St. Louis Heights," said Dale Evans, president of Charley's Taxi. "It might make more sense to pay taxis to pick up people in those areas and deliver them to major bus routes."

  • Unused tour buses could be put into service on public routes in peak or off-hours, adding service at times and places not regularly served by city buses.

    "They could help move around people who work late at night, when there is no bus service, or serve specific populations, like teenagers working summer jobs," Tanaka said.

  • Trolleys and other shuttle vehicles could carry more residents and tourists through Waikiki and other business areas, freeing more city buses for use in other areas.

    "The BRT is going to be basically a shuttle service in Waikiki," Howard said. "As a taxpayer, I'd rather see our resources go for residents in other areas who need the service more."

Cheryl Soon, the city's director of transportation services, says the city has some private-public partnerships and is considering others.

The most successful to date has been the development of a Kaimuki-to-Waikiki shuttle for shoppers and tourists. The service is run by E Noa Tours and subsidized by $450,000 in city money. A private company, O'ahu Transit Services, also runs the day-to-day operations of the city's regular bus services.

Private companies say there is no way they can compete on their own with city transportation services, which are heavily supported by tax money. Some sort of government subsidy would be needed for any of the alternatives.

"There's no way we can compete head-to-head when the government receives millions of dollars in federal money and heavily subsidizes the transportation system," Tanaka said.

On the Mainland, local governments sometimes pay private companies to supplement mass-transit services. Taxi drivers in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and elsewhere receive a government voucher for each healthcare patient they transport to a doctor's appointment. Private motorcoaches in California are paid to provide morning and evening transportation for commuters. In Southern California, taxis and small airport shuttles are used as feeders for major bus lines.

Soon said the city sometimes contracts private tour buses for service to large public events, and is considering its own limited program to allow taxis to help some people served by the Handi-Van operations.

More public-private partnerships like those would benefit everyone, the business leaders say.

"I'm a great proponent of public transportation, but there's not enough of it and it's not good enough. If private businesses are kept alive, the government can tax us and then have more revenue to provide more money for public transportation for the people who need it most," Tanaka said.

Some Hawai'i partnerships are working. Developers in the 'Ewa area help pay for a private coach service that brings commuters back and forth from town every day in a luxurious, express-style tour bus. In Mililani, a developer-supported shuttle service helps residents get around town on trolleys and buses.

The success of such programs has been spotty, Bunda said.

"Back in the 1990s, the city put out bids for private companies to provide express service from 'Ewa, Village Park and elsewhere," she said. "The problem was that tour buses are seasonal. Sometimes they just weren't there when needed. It was all right in the morning, but in the afternoon, the buses sometimes became a problem."

Bunda said the private companies need to come up with workable proposals if they want to be taken seriously. "They can't just keep complaining that they are ignored. If they can come up with a decent proposal and show how it can help, then that's productive. I'm sure the city would be open to that kind of communication."

Some of the business leaders feel a deeper rift separates the two sides.

"There's a conscious decision not to use the private sector here," Evans said. "Right now the government gets all the money and wants to do it all by itself. They'd rather keep the private industry as a supplicant here."