Fires that destroyed two city Handi-Vans used to transport the disabled were caused by the excessive age of the vehicles, according to the city’s top transportation official.

The fires, which endangered the lives of disabled passengers and drivers, highlight the risk that the city is taking in keeping dozens of vans on the road past their intended lifespan. Both vans that caught fire were well beyond the city’s standard of removing vehicles from service after five years of use or 250,000 miles.

A Civil Beat review of Handi-Van data indicates that the city should have retired about two-thirds of its current vans by now, but for years failed to buy sufficient numbers of vans to replenish the fleet — a situation exacerbated by legal challenges to its procurement process in 2011.

The Handi-Van on July 9, 2014.

A city Handi-Van, July 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The city is currently in the midst of procuring 99 new vans, but the process has been slower than expected and some 14,000 disabled passengers who depend on Oahu’s Handi-Van service to make it to doctors’ appointments, grocery stores, jobs and other outings may have to rely on older vans until the end of the year.

‘Component Failure Due to Fatigue’

In March, Georgette Chun was driving two passengers, one in a wheelchair, on H-1 near Salt Lake when she smelled smoke. About five minutes after she pulled the van over and helped the passengers out, she said it was engulfed in flames. 

“It was pretty quick,” said Chun.

The van had been on the road for eight years and had more than 340,000 miles on it. 

In 2011, another Handi-Van burst into flames on H-2, closing four lanes of traffic. The driver escaped unharmed and there were no passengers aboard.

That van was nine years old and had nearly 370,000 miles on it.

The principal cause of both fires was “component failure due to fatigue,” said Mike Formby, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services. 

Formby, who was appointed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell last year to lead the city’s transportation department, is candid about the problems with the Handi-Van fleet, which he has been working to overhaul. 

“If you get a new car, that car ages and as it becomes 5, 10, 12 years old, we just expect things are going to fail and they do,” he said, noting that the same is true of the Handi-Vans, some of which have more than 500,000 miles on them — double the city’s threshold for retirement.

Years of Delays in Buying Vehicles

Much of the 157-van fleet was allowed to age well past the intended lifespan because of the city’s failure to buy new Handi-Vans on a regular basis over the past decade, city data shows. Recent legal challenges brought by a vendor also delayed procurement of new vans by about three years, according to Formby.

The city should buy about 30 new Handi-Vans a year to keep the fleet up to date and within industry standards, according to Formby. 

However, from 2002 to 2010, the city complied with this standard only about half the time. The city should have bought about 270 new Handi-Vans during those years, but purchased only 119 vehicles, according to city data.

Soderholm Sales and Leasing issued several legal challenges, beginning in 2011, to the city’s attempt to award a Handi-Van vendor contract to a mainland firm. The city ultimately won, with a judge ruling that mainland firms are allowed to bid on the city’s Handi-Van contract because it’s funded by federal dollars. Soderholm ultimately won the city contract anyway because it was the lowest bidder on a new request for proposals.

Drivers have to place blocks under the wheels of older vans when they are parked on hills to make sure they don’t roll backwards.

Formby said he didn’t know why sufficient vans weren’t purchased in the years before the legal challenges. 

“No one in current leadership positions at DTS has corporate knowledge regarding why DTS did not procure HV’s or did not procure sufficient HV’s during certain years,” he said by email. “This lack of procurement exacerbated the lack of procurement between 2011 and 2013 due to bid protests and litigation.”

Formby said in addition to the 99 new Handi-Vans procured this year, the city will continue to procure vehicles on an annual basis in order to keep up with industry standards.

The roll-out of the 99 new Handi-Vans has been much slower than hoped, however, due to manufacturing delays and defects with the vans, according to the city. 

As of last week, only about 18 of the new Handi-Vans had been cleared for service and another six are on island awaiting final inspection approvals.

Denise Soderholm, vice president of Soderholm Sales and Leasing, said that all of the vans should be built by this fall, but noted that they will still have to undergo city inspections.

Meanwhile, thousands of disabled residents will have to continue depending on the older Handi-Vans, about one-fourth of which are down for maintenance on any given day.

Donald Sakamoto, chairman of Citizens for a Fair ADA Ride, said that the Handi-Van fires are symptomatic of an array of other problems with the vans. 

He said some of the seats are broken and lift chairs used to help people in wheelchairs on and off the vans sometimes break. Drivers also have to place blocks under the wheels of older vans when they are parked on hills to make sure they don’t roll backwards when they are helping people on and off the vans, he said. 

In older vehicles, “the brakes can’t withstand the weight of the van anymore,” Sakamoto said. 

“I’m concerned about the safety because the longer these vans are on the road it does affect the safety of passengers if the vans are very old,” he said.

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