By ERIN MILLER
Hawaii County Council members weighed the ideas of seeking a general excise tax increase, a fuel tax increase or raising bus fares to help fund the county’s Mass Transit Agency.
Mass Transit Acting Administrator Tiffany Kai didn’t mention the possible bus fare hike, which Mayor Billy Kenoi told West Hawaii business owners could be an option at a meeting earlier this month. South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford did raise the possibility.
“It’s been in discussion,” Kai said. “We don’t have a definite number of what we’re going to do , if we raise bus fares. We’re weighing our options right now.”
It costs $5.87 per passenger to run the county public transportation system, and that number is expected to spike to about $7 per passenger in the budget year beginning July 1 because of added costs, Kai said last week. Passengers pay $1 per ride, with students, seniors and people with disabilities riding at no charge.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi broached the idea of Hawaii County seeking a half-percent GET increase. The Legislature authorized the City and County of Honolulu to implement such an increase to offset the cost of building a rail system.
“As I understand it right now, it’s off the table,” Onishi said, adding the council could make a request for that option through the Hawaii Association of Counties. “That would would be a revenue source for you folks, where the entire island would be paying for mass transit.”
Kai said her agency hadn’t discussed that proposal before, and said it might be something for the administration to consider.
Ford suggested a different means to get islandwide revenue for the transit agency.
“If we were to tack on some amount of money to the highway tax and have it dedicated specifically to the mass transit system, can we do that?” Ford asked Deputy Finance Director Deanna Sako.
Sako said the county could do that. The Department of Public Works is also considering making a request to increase the fuel tax, to increase the pool of funds for highway and road repair around the island.
Ford asked Sako to put together some information on how much money a half-cent increase to the fuel tax would generate.
Kai said her department would like to add two mechanics and an accounts clerk. Salaries and benefits for those three new employees would cost about $122,000, she said. The agency now has three mechanics, and they can’t always keep up with the maintenance required to keep the county’s bus fleet in top working order.
The mechanics have been “doing quick fixes just to have enough buses for runs,” Kai said. “There have been days when we have just one spare bus available.”
The Mass Transit Agency is seeking a $500,000 increase to its current $8.1 million budget for the 2013-14 budget year. About half of the funding comes from the general fund, with the other half coming from the highway fund. The agency also gets funding from federal grants.
Kai said ridership increased about 9 percent between fiscal year 2010-11 and fiscal year 2011-12. About 90,500 riders used the bus system in January, Kai said.
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