Bus fares could be on rise again


HILO — A hike in county bus fares may be “unavoidable,” a transit official said Thursday.

Currently, it costs $5.87 per passenger to run the county public transportation system, said Tiffany Kai, acting Mass Transit Agency administrator. That number is expected to spike to about $7 per passenger in the budget year beginning July 1 because of added costs to run the bus system, she said.

In comparison, passengers pay only $1 per trip, and children under five, students, kupuna 55 and older and riders with disabilities ride free. Free countywide bus fare began in 2005 and ended in the 2011-12 budget year amidst much controversy.

“We’re still looking at whether there will be a fare increase, but it may be unavoidable,” Kai said. “There’s been an increased demand for improved service and an increased cost.”

Kai said the administration is currently evaluating its options, and it’s not known how much of an increase might be requested. Any increase must be approved by the County Council.

Council Finance Committee Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter didn’t return calls Wednesday or Thursday about the proposed budget that will be the subject of three days of departmental budget hearings next week.

But South Kona/Ka’u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who was Finance Committee chairwoman last year, said she’ll have a lot of questions before she’ll agree to an increase. Ford, on the losing end of a 6-3 vote that instituted the $1 fare in 2011, said too high a bus fare will dissuade riders from using the county transit service, resulting in more cars on the highways and a greater demand for other transportation improvements.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Ford, who has been scrutinizing budget worksheets in anticipation of next week’s budget hearings. “I would want to hear their whole tale of woe before I’d make a decision on that one.”

The Mass Transit Agency is seeking a $500,000 increase to its current $8.1 million budget for the 2013-14 budget year. That includes $3.8 million from the general fund, paid primarily by property taxes and $4.8 million from the highway fund, paid with fuel taxes, public utility franchise fees and the county portion of the vehicle weight tax. Federal grants account for $700,000 of the total budget, according to budget worksheets provided to the County Council.

Bus fares brought in $451,63 in the 2011-12 budget year. The current budget sets fare revenues at $500,000, and the budget year starting July 1 includes $480,000 tentatively budgeted for fare revenues.

Some 90,500 riders used the bus system in January, Kai said. She said about 40 percent of them were heading to South Kohala, the majority being workers at the area resorts.

Bus services are contracted out, and the five routes serving that area cost 42.5 percent of the total $2.8 million contracted in fiscal year 2011-12, according to an analysis of budget documents. Bus drivers are paid by the mile, not for time spent waiting between pickups, Kai said.

Although resort workers count for a high percentage of total ridership, to her knowledge, no one has approached the resorts about chipping in for the cost of mass transit, she said.