Blank check fix? Mass Transit admin asking for fast-track contract to right bus system

  • A polynesian Adventures Tour bus is used for the Hele-On intra-Kona route. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Brenda Carreira

HILO — Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira is asking the County Council to fast-track approval for a three-year contract for Hele-On bus service, although she doesn’t plan to disclose the vendor or the contract amount until after the matter is approved.

Resolution 304, to be heard Sept. 18, would give the department the authority to contract with one transportation vendor for two functions currently handled by two companies: provide drivers for county-owned buses and provide both drivers and buses for routes when there aren’t enough county buses to fill all the routes.

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With the county’s diminishing supply of usable buses, the contract could be quite lucrative. On Friday, 18 of the 29 Hele-On routes were using contracted buses.

The current driver vendor, Polynesian Adventure Tours, made almost twice as much on the emergency fill-ins as it did on its regular driver contract during the fiscal year ending June 30.

The regular bus driver contract paid the privately owned tour company $2.86 million, compared to $5.22 million for the fill-in buses, according to the county Finance Department. The second vendor, Roberts Hawaii Tours, was paid $1.36 million for fill-in buses during the same period, bringing total emergency fill-in bus contracts to $6.58 million.

In comparison, the entire Mass Transit budget that year was $15.7 million. New buses run from $300,000 to $600,000 each.

The county has put out a request for proposals for two vans and four mini-buses, which are smaller buses of 25 seats or less. Those should be in the fleet by the first quarter of 2020 Carreira has said. The county also applied for a grant to purchase 10 40-foot buses.

Despite the availability of federal grants that would have provided buses while costing the county nothing, there were no grant applications or purchases since 2014, she said.

Carreira previously worked as operations manager for both Roberts Hawaii Tours and Polynesian Adventures prior to joining the county Nov. 1.

The county charter requires council approval of contracts that stretch over multiple years. But Carreira said she’s required only to tell the council her budget can handle the contract amount, rather than share details of the contract. That will come later, she said Thursday.

“The resolution has to pass first,” Carreira said. “Not even the vendors know right now. … I can say it’s under the budget. Then we will make the announcement of the award.”

Hele-On bus driver contractors previously were on annual contracts, which don’t require council approval. Polynesian Adventure Tours, which holds the current annual contract, has had it extended several times since it expired June 30, 2018.

“This new contract will allow for efficiency and streamlining by contracting with only one vendor for drivers of county owned vehicles and drivers and buses for contractor-owned vehicles,” Carreira said in a communication to council members.

The communication was lacking the type of details communications typically have, especially when the administration is requesting an item be taken after the filing deadline, waived from committee and going to its single vote without prior vetting there. Carreira has also asked the council to vote to waive the five-day reconsideration period after the vote.

It remains to be seen whether council members will agree to what is essentially a blank check.

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“I anticipate when it comes before the council, complete disclosure regarding contract details (such as) vendor awarded, cost and funding will be made available to council and the public,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David, chairwoman of the Finance Committee. “That would ensure an opportunity for questions from council members and discussion.”

The council is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Sept. 18 at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with video testimony also available in Hilo council chambers, the Waimea and Pahoa council offices, the old Kohala courthouse and the Naalehu state office building.

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