East Hawaii News

County Eyes Changes to Shared-Ride Taxi Program

By Nathan Christophel
February 8, 2022, 5:30 PM HST
* Updated February 8, 4:49 PM
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As the reliability of Hawai’i County’s bus system improves, changes to other Hele-On programs are in the works, including plans to restructure the shared-ride taxi program.

The program was at one point very popular, providing more than 156,000 rides in a year, according to the county’s Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, which was adopted in 2018. However, Hawai‘i County Mass Transit Director John Andoh said the program is not sustainable in its current configuration.

“It is losing cab companies and ridership has been declining,” Andoh told Big Island Now, adding the service is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago when it was available in Hilo and Kona. “The shared-ride program needs restructuring.”

There also have been complaints from the public about not being able to get a ride because of the lack of taxis available after hours.

The county’s Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan recommends restructuring the program and Andoh agrees. He said because the reliability of the Hele-On bus system has improved and is no longer plagued by breakdowns and delays, the ride-share program no longer needs to pick up the slack.

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“The master plan recommends a restructure of this program to complement Hele-On and not replace it,” the Mass Transit director said. “The Hele-On routes and paratransit service are now expanded to operate on Sundays, holidays and evening hours in Hilo where the cab service operates. Additionally, there is services provided by (the Hawai’i County Economic Opportunity Council) and Coordinated Services for the Elderly that also supplement the expansion of Hele-On services that is funded by the Mass Transit Agency.”

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A review of log data also shows that most shared-ride program users live near a bus route and travel to destinations along established bus routes.

“Very few folks using the program live outside a 1-mile radius of the bus route threshold,” Andoh said.

The master plan lays out several recommendations to restructure the shared-ride program. They include:

  • Extending the program to other parts of the island.
  • Considering a requirement that taxi companies with more than five cabs be required to participate in the program.
  • Considering an increase in fares.
  • Entering into partnerships with transportation network companies such as Lyft and Uber, including with the shared-ride program, offering designated pick-up locations and agreements for emergency support.
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There’s also some thought about doing a study looking at replacing the shared-ride taxi program through partnerships with Lyft and Uber, micro-transit or even a new taxi-based program.

Mass Transit offers the shared-ride program in the Hilo area. Riders can purchase coupons to take a cab provided by one of three authorized taxi companies. One taxi coupon is good for up to 4 miles; however, riders are able to go farther, up to 9 miles from their pick-up location, by using a second coupon.

The price per coupon depends on the number purchased, with it being as low as $2. The county pays the participating taxi companies for the remainder of a ride’s cost not covered by the coupons. Passengers are responsible for coordinating rides directly with one of the participating taxi companies.

Current service hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The program is unavailable on Sundays and holidays. Additional hours are subject to the participating taxi’s discretion, but passengers are required to pay metered rates outside the program’s regular service hours.

Participating taxi companies are Marhysa’s Taxi, Daniel’s Taxi and Kwiki Taxi.

“Availability has been a challenge of cab companies not being able to operate 24 hours a day due to driver availability from the pandemic, as well as the cost for them to operate this service based on the reimbursement rate provided,” Andoh said.

He said many cab companies on the island don’t want to participate in the program as it currently stands. Mass Transit is in discussions with taxi operators to determine how to make the program more fiscally sufficient for them, plus adding Lyft and Uber to the program and encouraging additional taxi companies to participate islandwide.

For the interim, the county reduced the program’s service hours to match taxi availability to increase participation and usage.

No matter how the program is restructured, it will remain a shared-cost option. Andoh said the county will pay up to the first $12 of a ride and passengers using the program will pay anything more than that based on meter rate.

“The main reason why taxi cab companies won’t participate is because they can make more money from the meter than getting $16 for a 9 mile ride of which the user pays basically $4 if they buy a $30 (coupon) book,” he said. ” This model is not sustainable for the Mass Transit Agency or for encouragement of more taxi cabs. Also, the current model it’s causing people to replace Hele-On bus vs. complement it. The new model will require the passenger to share in the cost, which opens up availability to more riders.”

How people will pay to use the restructured program is still to be determined.

“The process will be electronic to eliminate the endless, labor-intensive manual process,” Andoh said, adding there will still be a registration process of some type. “In the case of using Lyft or Uber, you will have to enter a code to be registered for the subsidy. For the taxi, it’s likely to be the use of a county-provided credit card that can only be used for taxis. Many transit agencies that have implemented subsidized taxi programs have implemented this model.”

All providers in the shared-ride program also will continue to have to provide vehicles that are compliant with the American Disabilities Act or a relationship with a provider with access to ADA vehicles.

“This is already the case,” Andoh said. “And yes, they will have to comply with all county, state and federal policies related to transportation to be in this program.”

There will be public meetings and notifications via various media outlets to promote the revised program, Andoh said. Mass Transit also plans to get the word out about the changes via avenues such as newspapers, radio, TV, social media, the Hele-On website and various other networks, neighborhood associations and development of fliers and brochures.

Restructuring is planned for sometime this year after all details are finalized and outreach is completed. That includes development of new administrative rules and marketing materials to better promote the program.

The goal of revising the program is to get people using the Hele-On bus and paratransit systems first because they’re at a lower cost and use the shared-ride program for opportunities when Hele-On doesn’t exist or isn’t operating.

“Otherwise, what’s going to end up happening is if users attempt to use shared ride as a replacement to Hele-On, they’re going to be paying way more than they should have been had they taken that same trip on Hele-On,” Andoh said.

The changes also will help Mass Transit provide innovative solutions for people on the Big Island to get where they need to go.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Andoh said. “To expand our ability to provide public transportation in more creative ways than just traditional bus and paratransit.”

Proposed change to administrative rules

The Mass Transit Agency is proposing to revise administrative rules regarding the shared-ride program to repeal the $15 service charge for exchanging expired coupons and implement changes that coupons are non-refundable and cannot be exchanged.

The agency has a public hearing about the changes scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, at the Aupuni Center in Hilo.

The meeting will also be available via Zoom. The meeting ID is 949 4416 9350 and the passcode is VKHQX2.

Free bus fares

While the shared-ride program isn’t on the agenda for the upcoming County Council meeting this week, another Hele-On change looks to be on its way to approval.

The County Council during its Jan. 19 meeting unanimously approved the first reading of a bill that temporarily suspends fares for all of Hele-On’s fixed bus routes and paratransit routes until Dec. 31, 2023, essentially making bus rides free. The council will take up the second and final reading of that bill during its meeting Wednesday, Feb. 9.

Mass Transit received grant funds from the state, which will be used to cover the operational costs of the temporary suspension in services. The amendment is being made in an effort to remove barriers to riding public transit, boost and rebuild bus ridership and keep frontline employees and riders safer and socially distanced from each other by eliminating the exchange of fares.

The County Council meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

In anticipation of the fare change, which could take effect as early as March, Mass Transit discontinued the sale of Hele-On bus tickets and Kako’o Paratransit tickets as of Jan. 17. Only January and February monthly passes are being sold.

For more information, call 808-961-8744 or click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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