Kauai has had a bus system since 2000, a period of 17 years. Targets have been met and there have been failures. It is timely to review the situation.
Kauai is a semi-rural area. Despite persistent optimism and rhetoric from at least one council member, it is impossible to operate a bus system profitably in such an environment. Nevertheless the system is included as one of four Kauai County enterprise activities. (the others — water, sewage and golf also typically are unprofitable but their ratios of revenue to expenses are far better than the about 15 percent for the bus system.)
According to the County Transportation Department, the system has incurred losses in every year of its operation. The losses have escalated from $711,000 in the initial year to nearly $5.4 million in the current year. Over the operation period, losses have totaled $48.3 million. Another way of saying this is that Kauai taxpayers have to date subsidized the system to almost $50 million
The principal competition for the bus is the private automotive vehicle. When there are limited impediments to the use of the private vehicle, it almost invariably will be the choice of transportation by people who are able to drive. In some locations, factors such as regular traffic congestion and high parking costs make public transportation more attractive.
With the quite-low fares on the system bus riding, disregarding user time and convenience, the cost of bus transportation is lower than private vehicle usage. But taking into account time and convenience factors for those having private vehicle access, the usage choice is almost invariably the private vehicle.
The Kauai resident population is about 70,000 people. Over 50,000 drivers licenses are held by residents. As persons with driving licenses are seldom bus riders, after eliminating the portion of the population that are not of age to drive, it appears that only about 5,000 of our adult residents are potentially users of the system.
For these, the buses can provide a valuable service. It should be noted, though, that this population segment, which are almost entirely nonvehicle owners, does not pay gasoline or vehicle weight taxes and are unlikely to pay real property taxes which provide the large majority of the county’s tax revenues.
We should conclude that our bus riders are not meaningfully in the taxpayer group that is bearing the burden for bus service losses.
Our County Transportation Department has been struggling valiantly to increase bus ridership. One of its actions has been to offer “paratransit.” This service, for eligible residents (those over 60 years of age and nonvehicle owners) involves picking up fares at locations off regular routes or returning them to such locations. I am informed that such service comprises only about 10 percent of bus mileage, but generates up to 40 percent of the operating losses and is susceptible to fraudulent claims.
At present, this service is provided by bus vehicles, although it would seem less costly to use smaller vehicles. In general, it should be observed that the greater the service being offered, the greater the operating loss being incurred.
Multiple questions could properly be asked. Would fare increases increase revenue? Do buses meaningfully mitigate traffic congestion? What economies could be taken to reduce expenditures? Many others.
This article is not intended to offer any overall conclusions about the bus service being currently provided. Rather, it is written in the belief that the county has not provided its citizens with adequate information about the scope and economics of the public transportation system being offered.
As always, our citizens should consider and make judgments about the circumstances and make known to our County Council their views about the alternatives.
Walter Lewis is a retired attorney and a resident of Kauai who writes a regular column for The Garden Island.