Rail, TheBus and HandiVan Operations – Under HART or the Mayor?

One question that is almost guaranteed to be on the ballot this fall is whether the operations for rail, TheBus and HandiVan should be under one agency. It makes sense to have all operations and maintenance (O&M) functions combined from an economic as well as public transit standpoint.

As currently written, however, the charter authorizes HART to make decisions regarding rail ticket prices and schedules, while TheBus and HandiVan decisions are made by the city administration, with Honolulu City Council approval for certain decisions. It’s vital that schedules and fares be coordinated.

In order to determine the best structure, perhaps it would be easiest to start with what it shouldn’t be. We know having rail under the city’s Department of Transportation Services didn’t work. That’s why we now have HART. But HART isn’t working well either.

How about a separate entity with a different structure?

During the Honolulu Charter Commission’s last meeting, there was a good discussion about our current semi-autonomous agencies — HART and the Board of Water Supply. The main difference between the two is that HART is unable to generate enough revenue to be self sustaining. In fact, estimates of taxpayer subsidies are anywhere from 62% to 70% according to the Full Funding Grant Agreement.

Commissioners seemed to agree that fact alone means that a “semi-autonomous” agency is not the best option. Given that taxpayers will subsidize such a large part of the O&M, a political process is necessary, and that includes public input, transparency and accountability.

We’re left then some kind of board or commission under the mayor or HART. A number of proposals were introduced that suggest a merger of operations, and Commissioner Soon did quite a lot of research on other governance models. The models are as varied as the cities, but given our experience here, I think the best option is an elected board that is subject to sunshine laws, under the mayor with policy decisions made by the council. This would allow for greater accountability and transparency that is so sorely lacking under our current set up.

Other considerations include the Ansaldo contract and how it would be transferred, integrity of bus and van operations, so their funding is not “cannibalized” by rail, and coordination of any other contracts.

The commission has formed a group to discuss this issue further and will make recommendations for a vote at a future meeting. Their next meetings are set for March 17. Agendas and proposals are available on the commission’s website at http://honoluluchartercommission.org/.

As always, your comments are welcome here and by the commission at cclcharter@honolulu.gov.

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