By NANCY COOK LAUER
By bus or by car, your ride is soon going to cost you more.
The Hawaii County Council on Tuesday advanced bills doubling bus fares and car registration and vehicle weight taxes.
The votes came in the face of opposition from about a dozen people, several who said raising money from the poor is especially distasteful at the same meeting where the council was to vote on 4 percent raises for council staff.
“It just doesn’t sit right to think about the hardships some are going through while others are sitting pretty with raises,” said Tina Floyd of Pahoa.
Readers spoke about making the bus system more efficient, and several said if fees are increased to levels similar to Honolulu, then service should be as well, particularly adding Sunday service. Others talked about the effect the increases will have on students and the working poor.
Shannon Rudolph said she recently picked up a 16-year-old hitchhiker who said she didn’t have money for the bus.
A few testifiers agreed with the fare hikes, saying the bus system should pay for itself. Tim Rees, testifying from Hilo, said bus fares could be raised for some riders, but not the disabled.
“What are we even doing in this county pretending that we can’t afford to give disabled people a free ride,” Rees said. “To try to tap money out of disabled folks for riding the bus, I find it reprehensible.”
Hikes to bus fares are expected to bring in an additional $617,500 and hikes to vehicle registration and weight fees will raise about $2.8 million annually, according to the county Finance Department.
“To improve the bus service, we need something called money,” said Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan.
Currently, it costs $5.87 per passenger to run the county public transportation system, according to Tiffany Kai, acting Mass Transit Agency administrator. That number is expected to spike to about $7 per passenger in the budget year beginning July 1 because of added costs to run the bus system, she said.
In comparison, passengers pay only $1 per trip, and children under five, students, kupuna 55 and older and riders with disabilities ride free. Free countywide bus fare began in 2005 and ended in the 2011-12 budget year amidst much controversy.
Bill 86, on its final reading, raises bus fares, beginning July 1.
The bill will increase bus fares by $1 per one-way trip, doubling the rate for regular riders to $2 and ending free rides for students, seniors and people with disabilities. It also raises the age for the senior discount from 55 to 60.
The bill passed 7-1, with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford voting no and Pahoa Councilman Zendo Kern absent.
Ford said the state Department of Education should either lower their rates for busing of school children or chip in to the county transit system. She urged Mass Transit to contact the state and ask for help.
Bill 85, which still has one more reading, raises the vehicle weight tax from 0.75 cents per pound of vehicle to 1.25 cents per pound for noncommercial vehicles and passenger-carrying vehicles, such as buses, and from 2 cents to 2.5 cents per pound for trucks and nonpassenger commercial vehicles.
The bill passed 7-1, with Ford voting no and Kern absent.
“I don’t think it’s fair to continue to raise rates until we do something to increase the efficiency of this office,” Ford said.
The minimum tax will go from $6 to $12, and the county’s annual registration fee will go from $5 to $12.
County officials estimated the increases will range from $24.70 to $176.70 annually, depending on the vehicle. This will be the first county rate increase since 2004.
The money will go into the highway fund, which pays for highway repairs and maintenance, mass transit services and related work.