Proposed changes to county Shared-Ride Taxi Program help some, hurt others
April 1, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Tahnee Yates doesn’t have a car. To get to work and run errands from her home on Makani Circle in Hilo, she used to catch the bus for free but for unknown reasons she says the bus no longer stops for her.
So about a month ago, she became a customer of the Shared-Ride Taxi Program offered by Hele-On. It is the Big Island’s public transportation provider overseen by the Hawai‘i County Mass Transit Agency.
She uses the program four to five times a week to travel to and from work, and also for grocery shopping, at a cost of $120 per month. That’s money Yates could use to save for a car or pay bills instead, so she is happy about proposed changes to the taxi program.
The program’s proposed new rules would do away with the current system in which patrons can purchase county-subsidized coupons to ride with any of the three participating taxi companies in the Hilo area. A book of 15 coupons costs $30, or $2 per coupon. Each coupon covers a ride of up to 4 miles. Two coupons can cover a trip up to 9 miles. Purchasing individual coupons starts at $6 for one.
In its place, under the proposed changes, the County would cover the entire metered cost of a 4-mile ride, or up to $15.80. Tips remain at the discretion of the customer in both programs.
The community was invited to offer its input on the proposed changes during a public hearing March 24 at the Aupuni Center in Hilo.
“I love it,” Yates said as she rode to work that afternoon with Daniel’s Taxi, one of the program’s participating taxi companies. “It will save me and a lot of other people a lot of money.”
However, not everyone is onboard.
Trips outside service days and hours — 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday — no longer would be subsidized. And, the County would stop paying for trips once the meter hits 4 miles. The remaining cost of the trip is paid solely by the customer.
Under the proposed changes, people who now rely on the current service using two coupons for rides up to 9 miles — such as residents of Kea‘au, Papaikou, Pepe‘ekeo and even some areas within Hilo such as Waiākea Uka or upper Kaʻūmana — would pay more.
For example: A 9-mile trip under the existing program costs as little as $4. Under the new program, it would cost about $19 (the approximate metered rate for the final 5 miles after the free first 4 miles).
Waiākea Uka resident Renee Robinson doesn’t have a license and doesn’t know how to drive. The bus stop is so far away from her home she doesn’t even know where it is. “I need this service,” she said during the hearing.
She asked why the proposed changes seem to benefit only people who live within a certain amount of miles and why that area is so small.
“If the bus is free, why not make this free, too?” she asked.
Outgoing Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh said during the hearing, speaking via Zoom, that there’s nothing stopping people from stepping out of a taxi or transportation network service provider’s vehicle after 4 miles and then immediately getting back in to go farther, using the subsidy again — if the driver allows.
But there’s no guarantee a driver, taxi company or transportation network company would allow this option. Riders could end up having to wait for another ride via the program or find a different transportation option after the 4-mile limit, resulting in an elongated trip. Services also would be based on a first-come, first-serve basis and not prioritized by purpose.
The proposed changes also include new Shared-Ride Program identification cards that would be issued to customers instead of coupons. The card would be presented to a participating taxi company’s drivers so the company could receive the County subsidy. To get an ID card, customers must complete a participation form, and a photo ID is required to register.
Other proposed changes include the addition of transportation network companies Uber and Lyft to the program — and opening up the program to the entire state.
Now, the program is only available in the urbanized Hilo area. With the proposed changes, Lyft and Uber, and taxi companies outside of Hilo that want to participate in the program, could offer the county-subsidized rides up to 4 miles for a one-way trip.
The County hopes the proposed new rules — which would take away the hassle of collecting coupons and pay the higher metered rate instead of the $8 per coupon the County currently subsidizes — will lead to more taxi companies around the island participating.
The program once was much more popular and available in Kona.
Additionally, under the proposed changes, all participating taxi and transportation network companies could not:
- Refuse service to people with disabilities who are able to use the vehicle.
- Charge a higher rate for people with disabilities and their equipment.
- Deny service to service animals accompanying riders with disabilities.
- Refuse to assist with stowing mobility devices such as wheelchairs and walkers.
- Charge a fee for personal care attendants.
There would be no limit to the number of 4-mile or less one-way rides a customer could take.
The new rules include other administrative functions and would go into effect 10 days after they are filed with the county clerk. Mass Transit has not made a decision about when to file the proposed changes, so a start date is still up in the air.
The proposed changes are part of the implementation of the County’s Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, adopted in 2018. According to Mass Transit officials, they are meant to encourage more people to use the program, giving residents and visitors more freedom of choice without having to worry about expiring coupons, wasting coupons or having to take time to purchase them.
For Big Island residents such as Kirk Salazar, who has used the ride-share program for almost as long as it’s been available, the savings under the new program could be nearly $90 a month.
As he was riding to Laundry Express in Downtown Hilo last week to wash clothes, he said the farthest he travels from his home on ‘Iliahi Street in Hilo is to Walmart or Prince Kūhiō Plaza, which both are within the 4-mile range.
But for other residents, a litany of issues were brought up by the public during the public hearing:
- Difficulty getting rides through other Hele-On services that could be used in conjunction with the taxi program, including paratransit and fixed-route buses.
- Changes to bus routes that have made it even more necessary for some, many of whom are kūpuna, to use the ride-share program because a bus no longer comes close enough for them to get to
- What happens when metered rates go up?
- How Uber and Lyft charge for their rides, how that would accounted for and lack of internet availability in some areas of the island that make it difficult for some to use those options.
- Compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act for Uber and Lyft.
- The taxi program’s limited hours.
Some of those in attendance questioned why the program, which began in 1990, couldn’t simply get rid of the coupons and stay the same as it is now, saying if it’s not broken don’t fix it.
Others asked why the program had to be limited to the 4 miles instead of just covering up to the 9 miles already allowed. Even the taxi program’s budget that is capped at $1 million, according to the Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, was scrutinized. Some asked what happens if the program expands and the budget runs out because demand becomes so high.
The 90-minute hearing ended with more questions than answers. People left frustrated, confused and even angry.
Several attempts to reach Andoh by phone and email to get additional information and clarify some of what was presented and said during the hearing were unsuccessful. His last day as the Mass Transit administrator was March 31.