EXCLUSIVE: Handi-Van chief replaced in shakeup of troubled service

EXCLUSIVE: Handi-Van chief replaced in shakeup of troubled service

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After a tumultuous year, managers of the city's Handi-Van service have reassigned the head of the operation to a lower position in what's being called a "reorganization."

John Black has been the vice president of paratransit services and in charge of the Handi-Van for four years, until last month, when he was reassigned to become its fleet safety coordinator.

Because it's a personnel matter, Roger Morton, the president of Oahu Transit Services, the company that runs The Bus and Handi-Van, wouldn't explain why Black has been demoted, but Morton did say this: "It's a tough job. I think it was unfortunate. No one likes to do those things. But it was just time to move on and we're really looking forward to making good progress at Handi-Van."

The service, which provides more than one million rides a year to Oahu's disabled population, has been plagued with problems. Last fall, complaints about busy reservation lines and late van pick-ups spiked when a new reservation system began operation. Unionized drivers got upset with management in the spring after managers barred them from handing out complaint cards to Handi-Van riders.

Morton said a national and local search is now underway for Black's replacement, a process Morton hopes will take about four months.

In the meantime, Michelle Kennedy, director of marketing and communications who serves as spokeswoman for The Bus, will be the interim head of the Handi-Van.

"My main priority right now is just to support the staff and to make sure that all the initiatives we've been putting forth to better the service continues," Kennedy said.

Donald Sakamoto, a Kaneohe resident who is legally blind, chairs a committee that represents some Handi-Van riders.

"And I hope they get a qualified person to take that place and improve the paratransit Handi-Van, because we've been waiting for a long time for good transportation services," Sakamoto said.

"There are still ongoing situations with them sending two vans for the same person because they could not reach the person, the operator of the first van," Sakamoto said.

Morton said mobile data terminals in Handi-Vans don't work 20-percent of the time, so dispatchers don't always know whether vans have picked passengers up. Handi-Van is working to fix that problem, Morton said.

"We're adding more drivers to our service so we can have more runs and more schedule reliability," Morton added.

Next week, the Handi-Van will graduate a class of 12 new Handi-Van operators, bringing them to an all-time high of 287 with plans to reach 300 drivers within a few months.

The last of its 99 new vans just arrived last week.

"In the past, it was not possible to hire new drivers if you don't have new vehicles for them to operate. So I think we're in a much better space right now," Morton said.

A multi-year dispute between a losing bidder for the new vans and the city delayed the vans' arrival, forcing the city to use older vans longer than planned and contributing to service shortages.

There are now 181 vans on the road, Morton said, an increase from 130 on the road last November to handle about 3,600 trips a day.

Complaints about busy reservation lines peaked at more than 100 last October, but those complaints have fallen into the single digits in recent months, according to figures released by the Handi-Van.

Riders' complaints about late vans also were at their highest at around 90 during October of 2014, falling to a range of between 20 and 55 in the last five months.

"I'm confident that we will see in the next month or so, as we add more services, that we will see on-time performance improve. And that's really been our Achilles heel, has been trying to deliver an acceptable level of on-time performance," Morton said.

Handi-Van has hired an additional vendor -- Eco-Cab -- which has purchased wheelchair-accessible cabs and will provide additional service at peak times starting Monday, Morton said.

About 70 percent of Handi-Van's riders are ambulatory and 30 percent of them use wheelchairs or motorized scooters.

The Handi-Van already contracts with The Cab to provide taxi trips for ambulatory riders who go to routine doctor's appointments, medical treatment or to work and school.

Morton said the Honolulu City Council is poised to approve an increase of several million dollars in the Handi-Van budget for next year, hiking its operating costs to $42.4 million.

Kennedy, the interim Handi-Van boss, said, "I know that we have a great staff at the Handi-Van. Everybody works out of the love, a lot of them work with a lot of Aloha. So I know that they will continue to do what they do and we will continue to get better."

Copyright 2015 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.