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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010

Hawaii school bus service being cut back as costs soar


By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Buses from Ground Transport Inc. line up at the company's airport area base yard.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Public school bus routes, which were cut back in November, will be reduced further next school year and the fare may climb to $1 from 75 cents.

The Department of Education will eliminate more school bus routes on O'ahu next school year by increasing the distance students will be required to walk to school.

Walk distances for students were increased in November from 1 mile to 1.5 miles for secondary students, and the fare jumped from 35 cents to 75 cents for a one-way trip.

Education officials, however, say those changes were not enough to address a $12 million shortage in the transportation budget.

Next school year, the walk distance for high school students will increase to 2.5 miles. The effective date of the change has not been determined.

Some members of the Board of Education voiced opposition to the reduction in bus service at a meeting yesterday, but the changes will take effect without the board's approval.

"This is the plan?" said Mary Cochran, Maui member of the BOE. "This plan, in its entirety, is unacceptable, period. It is heartless."

BOE vice chair Karen Knudsen said the bus changes may be reconsidered at a future meeting.

BIG DEFICIT

Education officials say there is a need to consolidate bus service in light of the rapidly rising cost. The cost of bus service has nearly tripled since 2003 to $72 million, education officials say.

"You can't run a $72 million business on $48 million," said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of facilities and support services.

A consortium of 12 bus contractors claims the new plan "paves the way for the elimination" of bus service. They gathered 40 or so bus drivers and parents outside the DOE building on Miller Street to sign-wave during the meeting.

"The transportation system is a necessary component of the school system," said Roy Pfund, vice president of investments at Roberts Hawaii.

Pfund said bus companies are willing to work with the DOE to lower costs to keep routes operating. He suggested that standardizing waiver days and staggering bell schedules in a complex area could save money by requiring fewer buses.

Education officials say they have no intention of eliminating bus services entirely.

"Some have suggested we get rid of bus service entirely when we run out of money, but we don't think that is a good idea. Under no circumstances would we suggest that," Moore said.

Already the DOE has eliminated routes in neighborhoods in Waipahu, 'Ewa Beach, Wai'anae, and portions of the Windward side, including Castle, Kahuku and Kalāheo.

Those route changes affected an estimated 600 of the 40,000 students who currently ride the school bus.

PROVIDERS OBJECT

About 60 people showed up to testify before the BOE on Tuesday, saying an increase in the walk distance could be dangerous for students. The board postponed hearing of the plan until yesterday's meeting.

The majority of testifiers were bus drivers and part of the Hawaii School Bus Association, a group of 12 companies whose revenue could be affected by the changes to DOE bus service.

A couple of parents also testified against increasing the distance students would be required to walk to school.

"It's a shame that you guys are putting my kid's safety in limbo because of a budget deficit," said Laura Ader, whose daughter attends 'Aiea Elementary School.

She said that if her daughter were to walk to school, she'd be required to cross four streets, two with a crosswalk, one without a crosswalk and one with a median strip.

Juanita Harwood, a grandparent of eight children from Nānākuli, said she also fears for kids' safety if more school buses are eliminated.

"Where we are at in Nānākuli ... traffic is just so bad," she said. "We don't want any of our Hawai'i children getting hurt."

At the beginning of the month, the DOE eliminated about two dozen bus routes in neighborhoods that no longer fall within the newly increased walk distances. Most of the schools affected were in Leeward or Windward O'ahu, where, Moore said, students have access to the city's TheBus service.

Moore said historically the DOE has never provided bus service to students living in urban Honolulu because of access to city bus services.

"Long ago ... when the city expanded bus service island-wide, we continued to operate the school bus system as if nothing had ever changed. This move, actually, is something we have internally discussed for a long time. Why are we providing bus service to Moanalua, but not to Farrington? There is not a whole lot of logic to it," Moore said.

The city, however, sent the DOE a letter in December saying it opposed discontinuing school bus service because it would burden the city bus service.

"The bulk of the terminated school bus service occurs in areas ... where our buses are already overloaded and have little capacity to accept additional passengers," wrote Wayne Yoshioka on Dec. 14.

Moore said the DOE continues to work with the city to resolve those concerns.

The DOE also says it can no longer to afford to subsidize bus transportation at the level that it has for years.

SUBSIDIZED RIDES

The DOE covers more than 90 percent of the cost of operating the school bus system, which serves only about one-fourth of public school students. Of the roughly $72 million it costs to run the service throughout the state, the DOE is only expected to collect about $6 million, based on the recently increase bus fares. Of the total $72 million cost, about $24 million goes to "curb-to-curb" services for special needs students.

The cost of operating the bus system has been rapidly rising over the past six years. In 2003, it was $28 million.

Costs increase each year because the DOE's bus contracts run for six years and about 15 percent of those contracts are up for rebid every school year.

Because of the increase in labor, fuel and maintenance costs, and other unknowns, when a contract comes up for rebid, the price nearly doubles from when it was negotiated six years earlier. And usually only one company will make a bid on a single contract, Moore said.

When asked why the cost of a contract doubles when it is rebid, Moore said: "You'll have to ask the bus companies."

BOE member Aileen Clarke said she was concerned about the rapid increase in costs. She questioned why bus companies have essentially been allowed to name their price. "I don't know that it is right to give them anything they ask for," Clarke said. "It seems as if there is a monopoly."

Pfund, with Roberts Hawaii, told board members he and other bus officials would be willing to sit down with the DOE and some board members to explain the cost structures.

"There are various factors involved. ... The cost of the buses, fuel, labor which we have to pay rates that are (United Public Worker) wages benefit structure and medical. All of that adds to the costs," Pfund said.

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