The ride-sharing Vanpool Hawaii has seen success in its 17 years in Hawaii and should find ways to continue during what it expects to be a temporary cutoff of federal funds. In the meantime, ride sharers should prepare to pay increased fees to support a worthwhile concept while the company works toward restoration of funding.
Federal funds were funneled to Vanpool Hawaii through the state Department of Transportation from its beginning in 1994 until they were cut off in April 2010, and the state cannot afford to pick up the bill. It has spent $3.7 million out of the highway funds to subsidize the company since then.
State transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the reason for cutting Hawaii’s federal funding was "administrative," but neither he nor company officials were specific. "Now it’s just a situation where we have to figure out how we can route the money and keep the program alive," Meisenzahl said.
Someone in either the Lingle administration or Hawaii’s congressional delegation — or both — appears to have dropped the ball more than a year ago. Nearly 40 other vanpool operations that are owned by VPSI Inc., the nation’s largest company of its kind and Vanpool Hawaii’s parent, receive their federal money through county or municipal governments and Hawaii should be treated the same way.
Even as it works on controlling costs, Vanpool Hawaii believes there remains a couple of million dollars in annual federal funds to tap and will be pursuing subsidies, as well as private-sector support.
Vanpool Hawaii has grown from an original fleet of 15 vehicles in 1994 to 323 vans and sport utility vehicles. Its 1,403 customers on Oahu and 221 on neighbor islands each pay $65 a month to rent a seat on a van or $80 in an SUV. The federal funds have amounted to nearly $2,000 per passenger annually. Passengers can do the math to determine how much their monthly fees could increase if no other source of money is found in the interim.
The taxpayer funding doesn’t seem to be something that individual automobile commuters should get worked up about. Subsidies for TheBus amount to 33 cents per passenger mile, more than twice that going to Vanpool Hawaii. The federal funding has amounted to $1.73 per vanpool passenger trip, compared with $3.17 per bus ride.
Sole commuters can be glad that the vanpool and bus passengers help keep the rush-hour traffic from worsening; the rail transit eventually will provide more relief from otherwise increasingly congested traffic. The vanpool programs eliminate more than 825,000 vehicle commuting trips annually, according to Vanpool Hawaii.
Vanpool fees of military and other federal employees are paid by the federal government, which means they commute for free. State and county governments and private companies should consider helping their vanpool commuters get past what should be a temporary bump in the ride-sharing road.