It was standing room only at Honolulu Hale yesterday during a hearing about the Oahu Transit Service's operating budget.

Bus fare hike
would hit seniors

The two-year pass is
to be dropped and riders
charged a 25-cent fee

City Council members, bus drivers, riders and others said senior citizens would bear the brunt of fare increases proposed to help avert a bus strike.

"I'm opposing an increase on the bus fares just for the simple fact because it's going into the wrong direction, it's taking from the wrong people," said bus driver Koren Hannemann.

"Senior citizens will catch a bus and ride 45 minutes wherever they have to just to get a sale item that's 25 cents less. And now they're proposing ... 25 cents every time a senior citizen jumps on the bus?"

A $6.8 million hike in bus fares with $4 million coming from senior citizen fares is moving on a fast track through the City Council. Under the proposal, the two-year $25 senior bus pass would be eliminated, but seniors with proper ID would pay 25 cents a ride after buying a senior ID for $10 a year. Those with senior bus passes now pay nothing more each time they ride the bus.

The Council will next take up the bill Aug. 25, the day before the union representing bus employees has called for a strike.

That same week, planned cuts in bus service -- runs eliminated, intervals between runs increased and consolidation of some routes -- are also scheduled to take effect unless the Council signals a willingness to raise fares enough to offset a $6 million shortfall in the $117 million bus operating budget. The shortfall covers an estimated $4.6 million in expenditures and $1.6 million in pension payments.

City transportation officials have said that without the bus fare increase, 100,000 bus service hours would have to be cut and some bus drivers would be laid off. Some cuts occurred in June and the more severe cuts are planned to begin Aug. 24. The issue of layoffs has been part of contract talks between Local 996 of the Teamsters Union and Oahu Transit Services, the private company that runs the bus system.

Transportation Director Cheryl Soon said after the hearing that she didn't hear enough from the Council yet to stop the August service cuts from going forward. "I don't think they sent a clear message to me ... about the increase," Soon said.

Soon said while she acknowledges that the bill is being expedited, she hears the Council asking to take a second look at senior citizen and other fares. "That has a financial consequence," she said.

The Transportation Department will continue public hearings on the service reductions tonight at 7 p.m. at Kapolei Hale and 7 p.m. tomorrow at Kailua District Park.

Bus fares last went up July 1 with adult individual fares rising to $1.75 from $1.50 and adult monthly pass to $30 from $27.

The new fare proposals call for monthly adult passes to rise to $37, the per-trip price for student riders to increase to 85 cents, and the student monthly pass will rise by $5, to $18.50.

Bus riders on morning and afternoon express routes will have to pay an extra 25 cents a ride under a new differential fare. A new 25-cent fee for transfers, which are currently free, will also go into effect.

Teamsters President Mel Kahele said the union, which represents 1,400 bus workers, takes no position on the bill.

"We're not for, we're not against at this current time," Kahele said. "If there are fares that needs to be increased, please, we need to look at it and if there's areas that we need to look at as far as monies being spent, please let's look into those areas as well."

Council Transportation Chairman Nestor Garcia said while the bill passed yesterday without changes, it was still a work in progress. "There will be permutations," he said.

Garcia said the bill could receive final approval by Sept. 24, which would shave a month off the normal course for bill approval.

But the question of raising bus fares resulted in heated exchanges between Soon and Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi during the committee hearing.

"There's no blame to be pointed, there's no he-said, she-said that's relevant to this discussion," Soon said.

"Try not to be defensive," Kobayashi responded.

Soon also took exception to Kobayashi and other Council members saying the Council was unaware of the bus service cuts. Soon said Kobayashi specifically asked about the reductions during last spring's budget discussions.

"So you knew," Soon said.

"We were told that you were ... going just make the runs more efficient. There was nothing about massive cuts," Kobayashi said.

"That's selective hearing on your part," Soon responded, later saying, "I would have to say that I feel a little bit like this is blaming the victim. I had to take a budget cut. I didn't want a budget cut and now I am putting into motion what has to be done to meet that budget cut and you're blaming me as if I wanted to have the budget cut."

Several speakers objected to the senior fare structure.

"I think you should be ashamed if you try to balance your budget on senior citizens," Barbara Polk said.

"If a fare increase does occur, I think we need to have circuit breakers," Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz said. "We need to make sure that the fixed income people are kept in mind and that we don't have them have extra burdens."


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