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Thursday, August 14, 2003



City & County of Honolulu

City sets example
with bus backups

Options considered as a bus
strike nears include car pools
and staggered work hours

» Leeward residents say bus cuts hurt communities
» Inexperienced firm gets bus contract


Oahu businesses should prepare for a bus strike by figuring out how to get employees to share rides, work at home and stagger hours, city officials told executives yesterday.

Ben Lee, city managing director, said the city is working to do what it can. Steps for city workers could include:

>> Car pools and ride sharing.

>> Staggered hours and flex-time to let city workers dodge rush hours.

>> A "four-10" schedule, allowing some workers to put in four 10-hour days a week instead of five at eight hours.

>> Tracking city vehicles to see if there are spare cars and vans that can be used to bring people to work.

At a meeting with businesses yesterday, Lee recommended the private sector take similar steps.

Drivers and other employees of TheBus represented by the Hawaii Teamsters will strike Aug. 26 unless threatened service, benefits and staffing cutbacks are halted.

Large employers are already working on the contingencies, and some already have transportation assistance in place, enabling them to identify who uses TheBus.

"We have a bus voucher program," said Sheila Sumida, executive vice president of human resources at First Hawaiian Bank.

From that system, which provides subsidies to employees who buy bus passes, First Hawaiian knows it has 331 regular bus riders, she said.

"We're going to give the departments in which they work a list of people that ride in and ask people that drive in from that area if they can kokua," Sumida said.

American Savings Bank, which also has commute-help programs such as allowing people to divert pay before taxes to buy bus passes, said those programs can be used to help with parking costs and other unusual commuting needs.

"We know some people will bring their cars, so we'll make available information on early-bird parking," said Sherri Aoyama, executive vice president. "Flexible scheduling is something that we already have in place at American Savings Bank."

Employees can work with their supervisors and make adjustments to their hours if they need to, and that would certainly work in the case of a bus strike, Aoyama said.

Bank of Hawaii said its branch managers have already had discussions with employees, said spokesman Stafford Kiguchi. For now, it seems employees have already made their own contingency plans, he said.

The city's Lee said that while a strike may be averted, it is best to be prepared.

"We believe that good-faith negotiations will continue with the Teamsters," Lee said. But unless the City Council agrees to fare increases, the private contractor that operates the buses, Oahu Transit Services Inc., will have to cut services and lay off workers, he said.

The Teamsters have threatened to strike if that happens. Another negotiating session was scheduled for today.

Cheryl Soon, city transportation director, said the city has to plan as if a strike will take place.

"They have not called off their strike threat, so we have to plan as if there is going to be one," Soon said.

Thousands of commuters would be affected. Oahu Transit said it has no count of how many people use TheBus to get to and from work, but its ridership runs to 240,000 boardings a day.

A worker would board TheBus twice a day, at least, and there are many students, leisure users and retirees who ride the system.

Even so, there will be serious transportation problems and traffic jams if the buses are not running, city officials said.

With Teamsters members in the audience for yesterday's meeting at the Neal Blaisdell Center, Soon said it is important to note that the city itself is not a party to the negotiations, which are between the union and the private contractor, OTS.

Soon advised businesses to start talking with workers to see if they can find a new way to get to work, such as riding with a family member or a neighbor.

"See if you can solve it in your organization," she said, perhaps by setting up a database of employee addresses and noting who has a car and who does not.

Companies might want to rent vans and assign people to drive them, said Soon. A check with rental companies showed there are 140 to 150 rental vans on the island, she said.

They will be snapped up fast if there is a strike, so businesses might want to reserve ahead, she said.

Flexibility is the key in a transportation emergency, said Paul Steffens, chief of the city's public transit division. "You've got to be flexible with yourself. You've got to be flexible with your employees," he said.

Steffens and other city officials said businesses should assign someone to be the focal point of coordinating employees' needs and should try to get people off the roads during rush hours.

The city is working with the state to expand freeway ZipLane hours and extend contra-flow hours, such as the rush-hour lane setups on Kalanianaole Highway and Kapiolani Boulevard, said Paul Won, chief of the traffic engineering division.

He said the city also is arranging extra police support at busy intersections and limiting permits for construction that might affect traffic flows.

Vicki Harris, executive director of Vanpool Hawaii, said its 10-year-old program has 150 vehicles on the road and has empty seats. The ride-sharing organization has other, new vehicles that it can put into service, she said.

The city is posting regular information on the possible strike on its Web site at www.co.honolulu.hi.us/dts/strike.htm.



TheBus


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art
KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM
A small crowd attended a public hearing yesterday at Kapolei Hale about proposed cuts to bus service. Paul Steffens, foreground, chief of the Public Transit Division of the Department of Transportation Services, listened as attendees testified.



Leeward residents say
bus cuts hurt communities


Makakilo resident Mary Bergmann told city officials last night that once she discovered the Makakilo City Express five years ago, she never drove to work again.

And she wants to keep it that way.

"I drive fast, so it's probably a good idea to keep me off the road," she said at a public hearing at Kapolei Hale.

Less than 50 people attended the meeting before city transportation officials. Attendees heard about planned service reductions and modifications to bus routes because of a $6 million shortfall in the city's $117 million bus operating budget. Many of them were already upset at the reductions that the city made in June.

"I fought hard for Makakilo to get its own bus to go downtown," said Tere Hunt, who has been riding TheBus for 18 years. "(Former Mayor) Frank Fasi hates me.

"But we got the 92 (Makakilo City Express), and then in June they reduced the three buses running daily to two. ... We want that back."

Shari Kimokeo, who has been riding the bus from Makakilo into town for the past 16 years, said she has already noticed a difference.

"It's standing room only, and some of the kids aren't back to school yet," she said. "And once we hit the freeway and someone slams on the brakes, you go flying.

"But that hasn't happened yet because our bus drivers are good ... and we don't want it to happen."

Some of the proposed bus service reductions and modifications for this month include cutting a bus from Route 1, which runs from Kaimuki to Kalihi, and Route 2, which runs from Waikiki to School Street to Middle Street. The difference would mean riders would have to wait between one to two minutes longer for the next bus, officials said.

"Some people may not even notice it," said Paul Steffens, chief of the city Public Transit Division. "I assure you that no one in the public transit business wants to reduce service. It's very painful to do that."

But while city officials were hoping to keep testimony centered on proposed bus service, some people could not help but talk about the proposed fare increases and possible bus strike later this month.

Almost all who testified last night said they would rather pay more to ride the bus if it meant avoiding reductions in bus service and bus drivers walking off the job.

"The City Council should restore the budget so we don't have to be here," said Leeward resident Harmony Bentosino.

Helga Wilhelm, of Angel Network Charities, testified that the organization she works for helps get homeless people off of welfare and into their own homes. Most of them rely on the bus for transportation.

"We subsidize a lot of those bus passes," she said. "Any change could force them back on the street."


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Bus fare card contract
goes to firm with
no experience

The winning company is also a
subject of the Harris campaign probe


A government contractor that is a subject of a criminal investigation into Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris' political campaign received a $2.2 million city contract for a state-of-the art bus fare system, even though the company has no experience in providing such systems.

City officials awarded a two-year contract in March to Royal Contracting Co. to provide a smart-card fare payment system for the city's bus system.

Royal Contracting, one of the state's largest construction firms, is better known for its work on city roads and government improvements. City officials and Royal Contracting admitted that the company has no experience in the transportation and high-tech fields.

Smart cards, used by transit systems throughout the mainland, are similar to debit cards or electronic passes for commuters. Fares are deducted from the cards each time riders board the bus.

The awarding of the contract comes as the city is reducing bus services and is proposing to increase fares due to budget constraints. The union representing city bus drivers has also threatened to go on strike at the end of the month due to the budget cuts.

"There they go giving more money to Royal Contracting when they want to increase bus fares mostly on the backs of senior citizens and the disabled," said City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.

City Transportation Director Cheryl Soon did not return a call to her office, and city spokeswoman Carol Costa did not respond to an inquiry about the contract.

Royal Contracting Vice President Leonard Leong defended his company's selection, saying his subcontractor, VFJ Technology, of Australia, has a large amount of expertise in providing smart-card applications.

According to Royal Contracting's bid proposal, VFJ helped implement similar systems for transit operators in Brazil, Italy and mainland China. Leong added that his company's proposal was nearly half the $4.3 million offered by the only other bidder, Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., of San Diego.

Cubic is a leading provider of smart-card technologies for transit systems nationwide whose recent awards include a $26 million contract for similar services in San Diego County and an $8 million contract from bus operators in Houston.

A third company, ERG Transit System Inc., of Canada, bid $2.2 million, but the city disqualified the company after it failed to submit a bond.

In a Feb. 13 letter to city Budget Director Ivan Lui-Kwan, the city's contract evaluation team cited Royal's lack of experience and acknowledged that losing bidder Cubic Transportation is "more than capable" of providing the city with a smart-card system.

But the panel said the city's budget "is not sufficient to afford the cost of a Cubic Transportation System."

The timing of Royal Contracting's award also has raised eyebrows.

City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle's investigation into the Harris campaign began taking a close look at Royal Contracting in February after Leong told the Star-Bulletin that his firm delivered dozens of historic city curbstones to city Managing Director Ben Lee.

The curbstones, which were provided at no cost, were to be used for a walkway at Lee's Punchbowl-area home.

Both Leong and Lee have denied wrongdoing, saying the curbstones have no value. Lee has since returned the curbstones to the city.

Leong also is a target of the state Campaign Spending Commission investigation into alleged illegal contributions to the Harris campaign.

Commission records show that Leong, a member of the Honolulu Police Commission, and his relatives contributed about $15,000 to the Harris campaign. Under state law, donors can give no more than $4,000 to a mayoral candidate during a four-year election period. City records show that the Harris administration has awarded Royal Contracting with about $40 million in contracts since 1994.

Harris has said that there is no connection between political donations and the awarding of city contracts.

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