Riders praise new paratransit system, gripe about price

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HILO — Paul Pascua rolled up to the testimony table and, with the help of a personal assistant, gave a County Council panel a piece of his mind.

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HILO — Paul Pascua rolled up to the testimony table and, with the help of a personal assistant, gave a County Council panel a piece of his mind.

Pascua, of Keaau, uses a power wheelchair. He said Tuesday he’s been limited in where he can go, because his disability prevents him from using the Hele-on fixed-route bus system.

A new public paratransit service, dubbed “Hele-on Kakoo,” has come to the rescue, thanks in part to a settlement of a lawsuit by a Hele-on bus rider who couldn’t get his motorized wheelchair onto a fixed-route bus. The paratransit service, offering door-to-door transportation for those riders who fill out a form and qualify, started July 1 in Kona and Hilo.

“For the first time, I could go by myself in my power wheelchair to the mall and it felt great,” Pascua said.

Kona rider Vivian Ontai was equally thrilled.

“It’s just a pleasure being able to get out,” Ontai said. “I am able to go to the beach and sit down and have a picnic and come home. I thought those days were over.”

The Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit was considering Bill 229, which would set the one-way rate for paratransit at twice the $2 fixed-route fare, with a personal assistant accompanying the rider able to ride free.

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows the county to charge up to twice the fare for a nondisabled rider on the fixed-route system. The county paratransit system runs within a one-mile corridor off of the intra-Hilo and intra-Kona fixed routes.

Pascua and several other testifers before the Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit said a $4 fare each way is just too expensive, especially considering disabled riders on the Hele-on fixed route bus pay a discounted fare of just $1.

“But $8 is too expensive for me to do it more often. I don’t have much money,” Pascua said. “Can you please make the paratransit cheaper so people like me can go out to the community more often?”

Independent living specialist Karin Riedel spoke for her clients, including Pascua.

“A big percentage of persons with disabilities fall under the poverty level and have to budget their money down to the dime,” Riedel said. “An $8 round trip is a burden that can’t be carried by many.”

Chris Cholas, a wheelchair user responding to a West Hawaii Today crowd-sourcing inquiry in the Hele-on Bus Users Forum on Facebook, said he had a hard time finding the information on the Hele-on website, but he’s now in the process of applying. He said the service area and hours are limited and there’s no Sunday service.

“Very much needed service, but cost to disabled riders is too steep and probably will mean that many potential riders won’t be able to take advantage of it,” he added.

Another disabled rider, Dane Alani, a blind vendor at the West Hawaii Civic Center, didn’t think the price is too high.

“I think the $4 you pay for service one way, I think it’s very good and reasonable,”Alani told the council committee. “I’m wildly happy with what you’ve done with paratransit. It’s a new day for disabled transportation.”

The paratransit plan is expected to cost $800,000 the first year, according to Mass Transit Administrator Tiffany Kai. She told the council Tuesday it costs the county $13 for each fixed-route rider each way, compared to $80 an hour for the Kona paratransit system and $75 an hour for the Hilo one.

It costs the county $150 to assess applicants for the paratransit system. Currently, there are about 30 eligible riders who made 52 trips in July.

Since the whole system isn’t a money-maker anyway, why not charge disabled riders less, say $2 each way, asked Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, the only no vote moving Bill 229 to the full council. The riders will feel the price difference much more than the county will, he said.

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, whose 27-year-old daughter has a disability, said the various programs assisting disabled clients should be able to provide vouchers to ease the financial stress on riders. She promised to research the issue before the bill reaches the council level.

“It helps subsidize this,” Poindexter said.

The county jumped the gun and started charging the $4 fare before the law was put into effect. That will take another month, as the bill now goes to first and second reading at the council level and then to the mayor for his signature. In the meantime, the service is free, said Carol Yamame, who’s in charge of the program.

Yamame said riders who paid before the law was put in place were reimbursed, a statement disputed by at least one user of the system.

“We did not get money back,” Riedel said after the meeting.

The paratransit plan is part of a 20-page settlement agreement signed last year by U.S. District Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi in Honolulu after the county was sued for not complying with the ADA.

Maui resident Ed Muegge filed the lawsuit claiming he was denied equal access to the transit system because he uses an electric scooter. He said he needs public transportation to get from Kona International Airport to Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel on Alii Drive when he comes to visit friends in Kailua-Kona.

In addition, Muegge, a frequent filer of ADA lawsuits, was to have received $10,000 in the settlement. His Honolulu attorney, Lunsford Phillips, was to have received $30,000, with another $5,000 available for follow-up and monitoring work.

Currently, Hele-On buses are described as accessible, but some riders who use the scooter-style mobility devices have found it difficult to fit in the aisles of some buses.

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The state Department of Transportation is monitoring the remediation of the Hele-On bus system for compliance with the ADA. The county is required to provide quarterly update reports on the progress of 15 remedial actions.

More information about the new Hele-on paratransit serevice can be found at http://www.heleonbus.org/transit-info-and-statistics.

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