It remains to be seen whether the city can consistently comply with the new, high standards.

Honolulu’s city-run Handi-Van service has three years to substantially reduce the time that its senior and disabled users are forced to spend waiting on the phone to reserve a trip, under a recent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Under the settlement, 95% of those reservation calls will have to be answered within three minutes and 99% of the calls will have to be answered within five minutes. 

That level of responsiveness would be nearly unprecedented, according to city transportation officials. The last time the Department of Transportation Services and the nonprofit Oahu Transit Services, which runs the Handi-Van for the city, hit those benchmarks was during the height of the Covid pandemic in November 2020, according to city officials.

A Handi-Van transports passengers across Honolulu. Under a new DOJ settlement, the city will have to leave its reservation line woes in the rear view, so that it consistently complies with ADA law. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

The Jan. 24 DOJ deal stems from a complaint filed prior to Covid, in 2019, to the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights by a longtime local Handi-Van user Donald Sakamoto. 

“They’ve got three years to clean it up,” Sakamoto said Friday of the settlement agreement. “I’m glad that the DOJ is on top of it but we need quicker solutions.” 

“I agree with the settlement, but I look forward to working with the admin and OTS,” he added.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that any cities providing bus or rail service provide paratransit service as well. 

“This agreement will allow users to reserve and use paratransit in Honolulu,” Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a press release.

The Justice Department is committed to ending discriminatory practices in paratransit, because accessible transportation is critical to independence and engagement in civic life,” the statement reads.

Shortage Of Available Workers

Historically, call wait times have been a problem for the Handi-Van, one of the nation’s most heavily demanded paratransit services. In 2019, Handi-Van officials reported riders having to wait anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes just to reach an operator. 

Sakamoto filed his complaint amid a spate of technical problems and crashes that made it extremely difficult for riders to get through on the reservation line.

The problem with those wait times disappeared amid the pandemic, when demand for Handi-Van plummeted. However, wait times started to increase again in May, according to figures released by DTS

By September, the average hold time for the senior and disabled island residents who rely on the paratransit service had reached nearly nine minutes. Just 36% of all calls that month were answered within five minutes, according to the DTS figures.

OTS and DTS leaders pointed to a shortage of available workers, caused by the “excessive” Covid-related absenteeism among the Handi-Van’s 35 or so reservationists. They aim to boost the total number of reservationists to 39.

Call wait times improved in November.

Some 83% of the reservation calls that month were answered within five minutes, according to data provided by DTS. That performance dropped in December to just under 59%, but it rebounded again in January to some 97% of calls answered within five minutes, according to the DTS data.

The city, meanwhile, is spending some $750,000 to upgrade the Handi-Van’s existing Trapeze scheduling software, according to DTS Director Roger Morton. Those upgrades will allow Honolulu’s paratransit users to schedule their rides directly using a computer or an app, and DTS estimates it would eliminate between 25% and 30% of the reservation calls they currently see.

Those changes aren’t expected to be ready until 2024, however.

It remains to be seen whether those upgrades plus the added reservationists under OTS will be enough for the city to consistently comply with its obligations under the DOJ settlement deal.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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