Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on Hawaii’s runaway school bus costs. Read other articles in the series.

The Hawaii Department of Education has decided to allow school bus companies to use older buses in an effort to bring down skyrocketing transportation costs.

At a time of declining resources, the district has been shifting money from other programs in order to pay bus contractors.

The department loosened the requirement on buses when it put more than 80 routes out for bid last month. Officials say they will allow companies to use older buses as long as they are refurbished after 10 years and meet state and federal safety requirements.

Until now, the department had an age limit on school buses. Contractors were required to retire them and buy new ones after a set number of years.

“One of our suggestions to the (Department of Education) to help lower costs was take out the age limitation on buses,” Akita Enterprises CEO Lindy Akita told Civil Beat.

State education officials and the Legislature have been struggling to curb runaway school bus costs for the past few years. Since 2005, transportation costs have more than doubled, from $34 million a year to $72 million a year. A request for nearly $20 million to prop up the transportation budget angered lawmakers who responded by zeroing out the department’s transportation funding for the coming year unless the department and the Board of Education come up with a plan to remedy the situation.

Much of the problem can be traced to a lack of competitive bidding, a situation Civil Beat has been documenting in its ongoing series, Taken For A Ride. Civil Beat found that school bus companies abruptly stopped bidding against each other and since 2007 there has not been a single regular education bus contract awarded that had more than one bid.

Last week, bus company owners and an attorney for the Hawaii School Bus Association acknowledged that the FBI is investigating possible price fixing related to the bidding process.

In an attempt to encourage more bids, the department sent out the bid solicitations on Oct. 28 that lifted the restriction on aging buses. Companies can submit their sealed bids through 2 p.m. Dec. 15. The 17 contracts containing 88 school bus routes would begin in July 2012 and run through June 2018.

Among the routes up for grabs are some in Kailua-Kona that the department took over in 2005 after the winning bidder was unable to hire enough drivers to meet its contractual obligations. The department, too, struggled to hire enough qualified drivers to man the 13 routes, officials told Civil Beat. Running those few routes on its own was also inefficient, they said.

It’s worth noting that the department recently mentioned taking over school bus services as one of numerous possible cost-saving measures. For now, though, it appears the department wants out of the school bus business.

“It’s not our main business,” said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services. “You need dispatchers, backups and standby people. For a large organization, we are not as nimble as the contractors might be.”

The buses for those routes were leased from the mainland, Moore said, and the lease is up next year.

Read the invitations for bids:

  • IFB D12-056 — two regular routes to Laupahoehoe High and Elementary School.
  • IFB D12-055 — 17 regular routes to schools in West Hawaii.
  • IFB D12-054 — Seven special education routes to schools in West Hawaii.
  • IFB D12-022 — 62 special education routes to schools in Honolulu and central Oahu.

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