Bus No. 13, which travels from Liliha to the University of Hawaii with stops in Chinatown and Waikiki, has been restored to full service as of Sunday. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said riders of the popular route can now expect a bus every 15 minutes, instead of every 20.
“We're moving about 760 more passengers that are seated every day, or a thousand if we count those that are standing up,” the mayor said in a Monday morning news conference.
The restoration of route 13 fulfills last year’s campaign promise by Caldwell to restore the most popular among 21 routes that were cut or scaled back under former Mayor Peter Carlisle. Since March, Caldwell’s administration has brought back service to eight bus routes, including the popular Country Express from Makaha to the Ala Moana Shopping Center.
However, keeping the city’s award-winning bus service intact for the upcoming fiscal year may prove to be a challenge as Honolulu faces a projected budget deficit of $156 million. Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Budget Committee, said the shortfall is a daunting number that requires both creativity and fiscal discipline.
“This $156 million, it seems like insurmountable, and that's if the city remains static," Kobayashi told KITV4.
Under existing city policy, 27 to 33 percent of bus operations must be paid at the fare box. For the current fiscal year, the bus subsidy provided by taxpayers reached $134 million.
On Friday, the mayor signed a bill that raises the four-day visitor bus pass from $25 to $35, but it’s expected to do little to ease the city’s financial woes, since it’s expected to generate only $200,000 per year in additional revenue. In a June, 26 letter to council members, Transportation Services Director Michael Formby said the new fare structure could produce even less money than anticipated, since it’s rare for a tourist to take full advantage of a four-day bus pass.
“At the average Visitor Pass use rate of 10.68 times, a $10.00 increase would equate to $3.27 per trip, making an Adult Fare at $2.50 more attractive to visitors,” Formby wrote.
DTS is among all but one city department facing $20 million in budget restrictions as the Caldwell administration races to catch up with a projected shortfall of $26 million this fiscal year, the result of public worker benefits and escalating pay raises, as well as other fixed costs such as debt service. Formby said his department is complying with the mayor’s cost-cutting effort by hiring half of the 38 positions that are currently vacant.
Caldwell said his administration might consider some out-of-the-box revenue enhancers, such as advertisements on bus exteriors. However, such an effort would require the reversal of state law, which prohibits the display of almost any outdoor ad or billboard.
“It can raise significant revenue and enhance service,” said Caldwell. “At the end of the day, where do you find that balance where you advertise on the outside of a bus? There is a balance, and of course we'll engage with the community before we go forward on that.”
Asked how the council would begin tackling next year’s seemingly “insurmountable” budget gap of $156 million, Kobayashi said the city may have no choice but to consider a variety of revenue generating measures to stave off any increase in residential property taxes, by far the largest contributor to city coffers at $444 million per year.
“If we have to keep looking at these little ways of getting enough revenue for next year, that’s what we may have to do,” said the councilwoman.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report stated the bus subsidy for the current fiscal year as $150 million.