Hawaii County officials have agreed to fix the Big Island’s public transit service after a federal investigation uncovered a litany of Americans With Disabilities Act violations aboard those buses and paratransit vans.

The investigation was launched by the Department of Justice and it came after riders complained that the island’s Hele-On operations weren’t ADA compliant, according to a DOJ news release.

Under a settlement announced Tuesday, the county and its Mass Transit Agency, which runs Hele-On, will repair the buses’ “chronically inoperable” mechanical lifts used to board wheelchairs. They’ll also enact staff training to better serve disabled transit passengers that’s been lacking despite its being required under federal law.

Riders in Hilo board a Hele-On public bus on the Big Island. A recent federal investigation uncovered numerous ADA violations to the transit service there. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2019

In return for those and other fixes, the DOJ will agree not to sue the county for its transit ADA violations, which were wide-ranging.

In addition to the faulty bus lifts, investigators found that some Big Island transit drivers failed to alert disabled passengers when the bus arrived at their stop, and that MTA made it difficult for vision-impaired riders to identify the right bus to board.

In one case, a legally blind rider boarded the wrong bus and traveled for miles before realizing they were on the incorrect route and then had to arrange their own personal transportation to get to the right place, the agreement stated.

The investigation found that MTA put undue burdens on riders trying to use the island’s taxi-voucher and paratransit services. That’s similar to the potential ADA violations uncovered in audits of Honolulu’s Handi-Van service in recent years.

“This agreement will remove accessibility barriers in transit for countless individuals with disabilities living on the Big Island,” Acting U.S. Attorney Judith Philips for the District of Hawaii said in Tuesday’s release. “Our office strongly supports efforts to improve access and inclusion under the ADA.”

The county has 90 days to revise its policies, and then 30 days to implement those changes once they’re approved, according to the settlement.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author