Handi-Van passengers and management are growing increasingly frustrated with the paratransit service’s city-controlled reservation line and the obstacles it poses to booking a ride.

Typically, those seeking a ride wait between 20 to 45 minutes just to reach an operator, said Charlotte Townsend, paratransit vice president for Oahu Transit Services, which runs Handi-Van for the city.

She and the riders that OTS serves call the situation unacceptable.

“I’m extremely frustrated as you are about the slowness,” Townsend told members of the local paratransit advocacy group Citizens For a Fair ADA Ride at the group’s latest quarterly meeting last month.

The Handi-Van.
An Oahu Transit Services official says the current reservation system can’t handle the volume of Handi-Van passengers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Getting adequate phone and reservation software to assist Handi-Van riders, she said, has been a “long-fought battle.”

Not only do the heavy call volumes and wait times pose a problem, but the reservation lines occasionally crash altogether — as they did at least twice in November — leaving Handi-Van users unable to book their rides as planned.

Those rides, which are booked by Americans with Disabilities Act-qualified users, often include trips for vital medical care.

One longtime Oahu paratransit advocate has already filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights, hoping it will intervene and force the city to fix the situation.

However, the Handi-Van’s phone reservation problems started long before the Department of Information Technology moved those phone lines over to the city’s Cisco Systems-run phone network, city officials say.

Further, the reservation line was moved there a year ago because OTS didn’t have the budget to replace or maintain its own “obsolete” phone equipment, added Mark Wong, the city’s IT director and chief information officer.

Setting up a dedicated connection between OTS’ reservation lines and the city’s central call manager would, at the very least, allow OTS to respond more quickly when its reservation lines crash, Wong said.

Still, Townsend said that “what has happened is a failure for their system to handle our volume.”

Both the reservation lines and Handi-Van’s dispatch software, run by Toronto-based Trapeze Group had crashed the day before the C-FADAR meeting, Townsend said.

Honolulu’s paratransit riders would benefit from an upgrade to better software on both fronts, she added.

“It’s taken too long,” Townsend told several dozen Handi-Van riders at the Nov. 14 meeting.

“The consequences, I believe, are not absorbed on all levels of government as to the ramifications and the impacts that it has on your life every day, and my staff and I are extremely frustrated by it.”

Improving Service An Uphill Climb

The lengthy wait times and crashes are just two of multiple challenges facing Handi-Van.

It’s one of the nation’s busiest and most heavily used paratransit systems per capita. The service provides more than 4,000 rides to disabled passengers each day on average, and its $2 fare hasn’t been increased in 18 years.

The city has struggled for years to improve the fleet’s on-time performance so that vans arrive no earlier than 10 minutes of the scheduled pickup time and no later than 30 minutes. Handi-Van only hit its monthly on-time performance goal of at least 90% once this year — back in January, Townsend reported at the November meeting.

Replacing older vans with new ones has often proven difficult, leading to strains on their maintenance. In three separate incidents this past decade, vans have caught fire while on the road. Two passengers were aboard in one of those instances. The driver who got them out safely was lauded as a hero.

The system has also had issues complying with ADA regulations. A 2016 city audit found that Handi-Van was in violation by accepting too many so-called “subscription” rides for local service agencies, leaving too few rides available for individual riders.

The city auditor is slated to provide an update by the end of the 2019 on how well Handi-Van has met the goals of that 2016 audit.

Currently, however, it’s the phone lines that are drawing passenger ire in particular.

“The phone system is horrible,” said Handi-Van rider Mary Jane Tiedemann. “Usually it takes a half hour, almost an hour to get through.”

Tiedemann said she’s gotten in trouble at work a couple of times for trying to book a Handi-Van when she wasn’t supposed to be on the phone — she was placed on hold for too long.

Sometimes, added longtime Handi-Van user Joy Nakata-Muranaka, users get disconnected from the reservation line right when their turn in the queue comes up. Then, they have to start over.

“The phone lines need to be improved,” she said.

The technical issues sometimes prevent her friends from booking doctors’ appointments the following day, Nakata-Muranaka said.

‘A Crappy System’

The latest reservation-line crash happened Nov. 23, part of a power surge that knocked out multiple services based in the Frank Fasi Municipal Building as crews were doing maintenance on the building’s surge protectors, Wong said.

Handi-Van’s lines were added to the city’s Cisco Systems-run phones in December 2018, he said.

“It was obsolete,” Wong said of OTS’ former phone system, run with Avaya equipment. Meanwhile, the city’s Cisco lines, with Voice Over Internet Protocol technology were more advanced and better protected from potential outside attacks, he added.

Still, Wong said he wasn’t sure whether the transfer from OTS’ older system to the upgraded system in any way contributed to a particularly bad crash on Dec. 3, 2018.

Donald Sakamoto, C-FADAR’s longtime president, filed a complaint with the FTA several months later. When the system crashed again, on May 4,  Sakamoto said he couldn’t get a response from city DTS officials on what caused the outage. In August, the FTA reached out to him about his earlier complaint.

Now, the federal office is in talks with the city about the situation, according to Scott Ishiyama, the city’s paratransit branch chief.

The Handi-Van, which provides about 4,000 rides per day, as among the busiest paratransit systems in the country.
The Handi-Van, which provides about 4,000 rides per day, is among the busiest paratransit systems in the country. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The key obstacle to getting the Handi-Van phone lines back up after a crash are the security firewalls in the city’s phone network, both Townsend and Wong said.

“When our phone system goes down on a Saturday, there is no one on site that we have control over that can get through those firewalls to fix our phone system,” Townsend said. “We have to contact the city, and there’s this huge delay. They’re not on 24 hours. That’s part of the problem.”

Townsend said she’d prefer that OTS return to the previous Avaya network. While Wong called it obsolete, Townsend said it’s “known in the country as one of the best dispatching system for paratransit.”

Currently, she said OTS and the city are in procurement for a vendor who might replace Handi-Van’s Trapeze software. The city has contracted with the company for Handi-Van dispatch software since 1998. Townsend said the software is costly to run and often requires expensive patches and upgrades on top of the base cost.

Its mapping system often sends the paratransit vans and their passengers well out of their way, she added.

OTS has dedicated staff trying to deliver service “with a crappy system,” she told riders at the C-FADAR meeting. A few minutes later, she apologized to the crowd for the comment. She added, however, that “I still believe it is.”

Trapeze officials did not respond to a request for comment last week.

So far in 2019, Handi-Van is up by nearly 16,000 rides, or 5.4 percent, Townsend said. It’d be nice if the service allowed some riders to book online or via smartphone, taking some of the strain off the reservation line.

“The frustration on my staff is high,” Townsend told the riders. “I’m amazed every day that we’re able to get you to where you need to go.”

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