Maui Bus may not fit students

Due to driver shortage, DOE plans to put youths on public transit; county says that’s a problem

Parents and guardians can’t necessarily rely on the Maui Bus to take their children to school next week, following a “crisis” shortage of qualified bus drivers for a new public schools transportation provider.

There are limited seats on already-scheduled Maui County public buses, said county spokesman Rod Antone on Wednesday.

And, with the state Department of Education reporting 250 students from Waikapu and Waihee needing rides to Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate schools, “we can’t guarantee there will be space on our buses,” Antone said.

Parents need to know they might need to make other arrangements.

It’s also been considered to call on Maui Economic Opportunity buses to help take children to school, but Antone said the agency already has a full schedule picking up seniors and giving rides to other passengers.

“They’ve got limited capacity as well,” he said.

The problem with school buses stems from a Department of Education announcement Tuesday that school bus service was temporarily suspended for students attending Lahainaluna High, Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate schools. Maui High School students will be affected as well with consolidated routes, which will mean longer wait times after school.

Public school officials reported there’s a shortage of qualified school bus drivers on Maui after new provider Ground Transport won a seven-year contract and took over routes for three of four areas on Maui – Baldwin, Lahainaluna and Maui High for the new school year beginning next week. Roberts Hawaii had been providing all school bus services on Maui, and it retained only the Makawao route, the largest contract area. Service in Roberts areas will be unaffected by the bus driver shortage.

Bus riders in affected areas are eligible for a free Maui Bus youth pass. Parents need to submit a completed application for school bus rides at their student’s main school office. Maui High students affected by route consolidation and having longer wait times will be provided free bus passes.

Antone said that even a youth bus pass will not ensure students can get on the Maui Bus, he said. “We don’t know if we have the capacity to make sure we get all the kids on board,” he said. “We can’t exactly kick people off. Our buses are pretty full in the morning.”

Bus service for special education and elementary school students is not affected.

Attempts to obtain comment from the state Department of Education on Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Public school officials, with input from Ground Transport, have discussed ridership options with Roberts Hawaii, but no agreement had been reached early this week.

Students return to schools on Monday.

Louis Gomes, president and chief executive officer of Ground Transport, said Wednesday that his company is doing its best to hire drivers but that the situation is out of its control. The company, which provides school bus service on Oahu as well, was “surprised” that it could not sign up more drivers from Roberts, which lost 48 regular and 23 special needs routes, he said.

In fact, most Roberts drivers stayed put, Gomes said, adding that Roberts offered retention bonuses equal to Ground Transport’s hiring bonuses for new drivers. “We would have thought some of their drivers would come over and apply,” he said.

He added that Roberts’ appeal of the awarding of the contracts delayed Ground Transport’s hiring process until late June, which “was kind of late.”

Ground Transport is 10 to 12 drivers short and has been “aggressively recruiting” drivers through newspaper and radio ads, Gomes said. He noted that obtaining a commercial driver’s license for school buses is more rigorous than getting one to be a tour bus driver. The CDL with a school endorsement requires a criminal background check, drug testing and physicals and tuberculosis testing.

He also pointed out that Ground Transport’s bid was 5 to 8 percent lower than Roberts, adding that the bidding process looked at other fitness factors as well. Gomes noted that his company has spent more than $6 million on new buses for Maui; most of the 80 buses in the fleet are new. A bigger bus costs $85,000 to $90,000 each and another $10,000 to $12,000 each to ship. The buses also include cameras and GPS technology.

Gomes said he understands the inconvenience the driver shortage is causing parents and that the safety of the children is paramount. He noted that the situation is temporary and that Ground Transport is “moving forward” to attract more drivers.

“We want to get our kids to school; that is our focus,” Gomes said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at Lee Imada can be reached at