Maui to push ahead with bus plan despite budget crunch
By CHRIS HAMILTON
WAILUKU — While Maui County might be facing its largest budget hole ever, the buses still need to run, and Mayor Charmaine Tavares said she is sticking with her pledge to start building a bevy of benches and shelters this year to protect riders from the sun, rain and wind.
Starting this summer, the county Department of Transportation plans to spend $257,000 for a contractor to construct five covered benches at the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center, which is a hub for the nearly 5-year-old Maui Bus system with room for a half dozen buses to come and go and take breaks.
Last year, the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center hub, which is a central location where passenger transfers occur, had 865,000 riders.
In addition, Maui Bus wants to build over the next five years the first nine of potentially 143 bus stops or shelters across the Valley Isle, said Transportation Department Director Don Medeiros on Monday.
Some of the most-used shelters are expected to include solar-powered interior lights, trash cans and bicycle racks as well as signs. The county spent about $250,000 on planning and design for the bus stops.
Last July, county-hired consultants KFH Group of Bethesda, Md., suggested that the county build all those bus stops, many composed of simple benches and American Disabilities Act-required wheelchair ramps and sidewalks, and estimated the total cost to be $4.3 million.
With or without an economy in the compost heap, the mayor has said she wants to get going.
Sometime in the coming fiscal year, Medeiros expects county-hired contractors to start construction on nine roadside shelters in the system's heaviest used areas:
The department has put the project out to bid, but Medeiros said he recently pulled back the "request for proposal" or RFP to see whether the federal government accepts his $800,000 funding application first. The county is responsible for the other $200,000 of the estimated $1 million project.
Capital improvements for public transit often are paid for through a combination of municipal bond sales and federal government freebies.
Every year since its inception, Maui Bus ridership has gone up, by a lot, according to a department report to the County Council's Budget and Finance Committee. In this fiscal year, which ends June 30, Maui Bus will provide nearly 13 percent more rides — or 2 million total — than the previous fiscal year. On average, 6,611 riders board a Maui Bus every day, according to the Transportation Department.
The County Council committee is in the process of reviewing and, possibly, significantly altering Tavares' fiscal year 2011 budget. They have until May 31 to balance the budget. They have $56 million less to spend on programs and services than last year due in most part to fewer taxes being collected as a result of shrunken housing values and a nasty spike in foreclosures.
However, Tavares has repeatedly called Maui Bus' expansion a top priority and a great source of pride for her administration. Maui Bus actually started under the regime of the previous mayor, Alan Arakawa, who is running against Tavares in this year's election.
But it's seen double-digit ridership leaps and gotten much-improved equipment, and now facilities, under Tavares.
"We survived without just a few years ago," Tavares said in her state of the county speech, which is traditionally a prelude to her budget presentation. "We could simply decide to stop the service and save lots of money. But would that make sense in this community to merely cut the whole expense out of our budget? Or should we ask people to pay a little bit more because this service is so important?
"In my mind, our bus service has become essential for our community. It is helping our community function, getting people to work and to other places. Our Maui Bus system has exceeded everyone's expectations and projections."
That hasn't stopped Tavares and Medeiros from getting a lot of heat for their transit proposals in the past week.
They've asked for fare increases; and now the administration has asked the County Council to abandon monthly bus passes ($35 for adults and $30 for seniors and students) in order to help sew up the puka in the county's pocket.
"We need the revenue," Medeiros said. "It's still a lot cheaper than owning a car or paying for gas."
He said he knows these are unpopular decisions to make, but it will generate almost $1 million annually for Maui Bus. That will help make up for some of the money lost by fluctuating fuel prices, he said.
It costs the county about $4 per ride to operate Maui Bus, Tavares said, which has a $7.6 million annual budget. The day-to-day operations are contracted out to Roberts Hawaii.
Maui Bus operates 13 regular routes and seven routes for commuters. For the moment, Maui Bus offers free rides on five routes in Wailuku, Kahului and Lahaina. But under the Department of Transportation's proposal, commuter route fares will go from $1 to $2, and the now-free routes would cost a dollar.
"Like the mayor says, 'We're in a tough patch right now and everybody needs to share the pain,'" Medeiros said.
Administration officials said due to the budget stringency, they also won't be able to add routes for a second straight year, despite almost-constant demands from the public for more ways to get from here to there. In particular, a lot of folks want Kula and Waihee routes, Medeiros said.
At least the county hasn't had to resort to stopping entire routes, he said, like many other cities and counties have done during the recession. Or some elected officials have chosen to stop running all buses on Sundays, he said.
High ridership numbers don't equate to balanced books. Like most public transit across the United States, the county must subsidize Maui Bus. That comes out to about $6 million a year, not including millions more in federal funds for new buses and other equipment, Medeiros said.
For instance, in addition to the $800,000 for those nine bus shelters, the federal government will provide almost $2 million, over a 10-month period through June to add five 37-passenger buses. The county taxpayer's contribution is $360,665 for the new buses.
Hopefully, in the next year, riders will have some nice sheltered bus stops to keep them happy and loyal, Medeiros said.