The problems that the Handi-Van’s phone lines routinely cause for riders are so bad that they violate federal law and the city should restore the previous phone software as soon as possible, according to a new report from the city auditor’s office.

Furthermore, amid all the other challenges the Handi-Van faces, the city should seriously consider separating the overwhelmed paratransit fleet from TheBus and place it under a separate operator, the report stated.

“While there are benefits of consolidating fixed-route and paratransit services, there are also benefits if both services are separated,” the report said.

Oahu Transit Services runs TheBus and the Handi-Van for the city, and the report says that under the current model consultants have found a “lack of incentives for OTS to improve paratransit operations.”

The Handi-Van.
Honolulu’s Handi-Van is one of the most heavily used paratransit systems in the country. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Roy Amemiya, the city’s managing director under Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, generally concurred with the audit’s findings. His Jan. 6 response letter did not directly address the possibility of moving Handi-Van from OTS, however.

The auditor’s report, released Tuesday, is an update on a 2016 audit that had chronicled a 5% decrease in Handi-Van on-time performance, too many trips with excessive trip times and problems complying with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

The latest paratransit audit took place from August to November. It notes that the city’s Department of Transportation Services and OTS have improved somewhat since then. Still, they have a way to go to solve the problems that have long plagued the Handi-Van — one of the nation’s busiest and most heavily used paratransit systems per capita.

In all three years since the initial audit, Handi-Van has failed to meet its stated goal of 90% on-time service, which allows vans to arrive up to 30 minutes after the scheduled pickup.

The service has also failed in the past two years to meet a goal to keep excessive trips to less than 1% of all trips. (For the past two years, it has defined “excessive trips” as taking longer than an hour.)

DTS and OTS still haven’t established a customer service program as previously recommended to collect feedback from all riders, despite the issues. In his response, Amemiya said the city has $50,000 budgeted for a Handi-Van customer survey.

Currently, the best way to gauge riders’ opinions is through the quarterly public meetings of Citizens for a Fair ADA Ride, which advocates for better paratransit service on Oahu.

Still, the several dozen or so riders who typically attend those meetings don’t “represent the broad base,” the new report states.

Donald Sakamoto, C-FADAR’s president, said Tuesday that he was encouraged the report highlighted Handi-Van’s phone line problems. The issue arose at the group’s most recent meeting, held at the state Capitol building in November.

“The phones, they’re terrible,” said Sakamoto, who has an outstanding complaint on the matter filed with the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights.

In late 2018, the Handi-Van’s phone lines were moved from OTS’s internal system to the city’s more advanced and secure lines. Department of Information Technology Director Mark Wong called OTS’ Avaya system “obsolete.”

Still, the move was ineffective and poorly planned, the audit stated, with Handi-Van customers waiting 20 to 45 minutes just to reach an operator and book a ride.

The auditor’s report recommends reverting back to the Avaya system.

The city, in its response, agreed that OTS should revert back to a standalone system.

Before the switch to the city’s Cisco Systems-run phones, OTS had requested about $30,000 to $40,000 in upgrades to its Avaya phones, according to the audit report. Now, the move back to the Avaya phones could cost about $250,000, it added.

Oahu’s busy paratransit fleet isn’t collecting as many federal dollars as it could to help fund those rides, the report also stated. The city could leverage more federal dollars for Handi-Van by partnering with state agencies, similar to a model used in Portland, Ore.

However, such efforts to reach out to the state on Handi-Van funding have been “unsuccessful,” the auditor’s report added.

Read the latest Handi-Van audit here:

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