With its tight quarters, the red-bricked Mission Memorial annex is not very accommodating to those with physical disabilities. But that didn’t stop a handful of Handi-Van riders from parking their motorized scooters single-file down the room’s narrow aisle last month to protest looming fare increases.
“We’re a nuisance — that’s how I feel about this meeting so far,” Lei Kema fumed at a Jan. 22 review by the city’s Rate Commission of rider fares for TheHandi-Van.
“People can’t afford to live in this city,” Kema said. “It’s terrible. Now I’ve got to feel that I’m terrible because I’m old. I’m terrible because I’m disabled.”
Other paratransit riders voiced their fears of proposed price hikes. Some said they felt overlooked by city leaders.
When someone at the front of the room had to leave, all the scooters behind them had to back out the door first.
Honolulu’s strained Handi-Van service is in a similarly tight spot.
Demand is the highest per capita in the nation. Its $2 fare hasn’t increased in 17 years, making it one of the lowest-priced paratransit services in the nation. City transit officials say they can’t keep up with rising demand — and that if fares aren’t increased soon the service will be stretched to the point of failure.
But low- and fixed-income riders argue that the proposed hikes, which would double a trip’s cost by July 2019, are too steep for them to handle on extremely limited budgets. It’s not fair, they argue, for the city to punish riders as it plays catchup after years of not raising fares.
The conundrum represents the first big test for the Rate Commission, an advisory board that’s met six times since forming last fall. It will take up the issue again Tuesday in hopes of making an official recommendation later this month ahead of city budget talks. The City Council will have some tough decisions to make later this year.
Not all Handi-Van riders are low-income. Everyone who uses the service must first qualify to ride under federal disability guidelines. And some disabled residents worry that the outcry over fares might reinforce stereotypes that as a group they’re powerless, or incapable of making sacrifices in tough times like everyone else.
Still, Handi-Van ridership includes some of Honolulu’s most vulnerable residents. A fare increase would hit hundreds of them as they struggle to make ends meet in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.
“People literally aren’t going to be able to leave their homes,” Barbra Armentrout, a Rate Commission member and frequent Handi-Van user, said at the meeting last month.
In fiscal year 2017, TheHandi-Van’s 180-van fleet plus its partnering taxis and social-service agencies made nearly 1.3 million trips across Oahu. The van trips cost an average of $46, according to the city’s Department of Transportation Services.
The city reported spending $42 million to run the paratransit service that year. Next year, it plans to ask for $51 million. If demand goes unchecked, by 2030 it could rival the anticipated operations costs of rail – more than $100 million.
“We do realize the sensitivity here,” Deputy DTS Director Jon Nouchi said of the proposed fare hikes, “but we do have to start playing catchup at some point.”
DTS’ proposal would raise the price of a Handi-Van trip to $3 in October and then $4 the following July. It also calls for a $1 “low-income fare” for qualifying riders starting in October and eventually increasing by 25 cents. That discount fare would be limited to 80 single rides a year, however.
“I do 80 rides in a month,” said Armentrout.
Armentrout, a fixture at Honolulu Hale and state Capitol hearings in her floral-crowned sunhat, said she gets by on $757 a month in social security. She also has a Section 8 housing subsidy to pay the rent and relies on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, to eat.
At home, she foregoes cable television, the internet and other amenities, she said. About $200 of her monthly budget goes toward Handi-Van transportation, she said.
“I’m living my life. I’m disabled, but I’m trying to live my life,” Armentrout said. She copes with degenerative disc disease, a recently fractured foot that healed wrong, and a knee that needs replacement. Staying active helps take her mind off the physical pain of those ailments.
“It would be worse if I laid in bed all day and didn’t go out,” Armentrout said.
DTS estimates 500 Handi-Van riders would qualify for the $1 discount fare, representing about 9 percent of the service’s riders. Special low-income fares are “extremely rare” across the country, Nouchi said. Marin County, California, was one of three places DTS found that offers them. The agency modeled its proposal for 80 discounted rides a year after that system.
Some riders said they’d be willing to accept smaller, more incremental increases. Donald Sakamoto, president of the local paratransit advocacy group Citizens for a Fair ADA Ride, said the city should boost the fare by 25 cents in October and again in 2019.
“That would be fair,” Sakamoto said. “A quarter here, a quarter there — it would have been good to do it. Now, they just try to rush it through. It’s too expensive.”
Armentrout said her budget could handle a 25-cent fare increase, which would have been $30 more for the 113 Handi-Van rides she recorded taking in December. But doubling the fare to $4 within two years is more than she can afford, she said.
Last year, the Honolulu City Council passed Bill 28, which increased TheBus’ single fare from $2.50 to $2.75 in January. The measure originally looked to raise Handi-Van prices too, but members scrapped that from the final bill.
Councilman Brandon Elefante, who chairs the Council’s Transportation Committee, said he and his colleagues wanted the Rate Commission to weigh in before they change the fare.
“There has to be a balancing act” between keeping the service accessible to the island’s most vulnerable residents and keeping it sustainable, he said.
TheHandi-Van’s annual trips could hit 2 million by 2022 if its on-time service improves and the $2 fare isn’t raised, a city consultant’s study found last year.
Local transit officials mainly point to TheHandi-Van’s comparatively low fare to explain why it has the country’s highest per capita demand — but there are other factors as well.
The island’s comfortable weather encourages year-round ridership. TheHandi-Van goes all over the island while many mainland paratransit services are more limited jurisdictionally. Generally, paratransit service is pegged to where the local bus routes run — and Honolulu’s TheBus covers a lot territory, officials say.
Also, some 28 percent of all Handi-Van rides go to social-service agencies who use it to transport their clients, according to Oahu Transit Services, the nonprofit contractor that runs TheBus and TheHandi-Van for the city. That’s a high rate compared to what many mainland paratransit services see, OTS President Roger Morton said.
In some ways, TheHandi-Van has been a victim of its own success. Recent service improvements have boosted demand, officials say.
For years, riders decried its lousy on-time arrival rates and its aging fleet. Vans caught fire while on the road at least three times from 2011 to 2014. One driver was praised as a hero for swiftly exiting the H-1 freeway and pulling a strapped-in passenger to safety moments before flames consumed a van.
OTS data shows it has improved its on-time arrivals from from just under 77 percent in September 2013 to more than 90 percent recently. (If a van arrives within 30 minutes of the scheduled pickup, it’s considered “on time.”)
The city also improved in replacing aging Handi-Vans, Morton said. It just added 27 new vehicles, with a net gain of 10, he said. It’s a start, but the fleet might need 30 more vans by 2022 to keep up with the demand, the 2016 study found. That would exceed the city’s current Handi-Van storage space on Middle Street, and force it to find a new facility.
To help curb demand, OTS encourages Handi-Van-eligible riders to use TheBus when they can. City officials hope fare increases will rein in demand, but some Rate Commission members frown on the idea of suppressing demand.
“It doesn’t seem to me it should be a public goal to make people travel less,” Rate Commission member Ann Bouslog said at the Jan. 22 meeting.
“It is a very complicated system,” Morton said. “It is a hard business to operate.”