Some school bus routes coming back online

Contractor brings eight drivers from Oahu while new hires are training

A Ground Transport school bus makes its way Thursday afternoon to the intersection of Piilani Highway and Ohukai Road in Kihei. Public school bus routes temporarily suspended last month because of a lack of qualified drivers are coming online with full service expected to return in a couple of weeks, an official said. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

School bus routes temporarily suspended last month because of a lack of drivers are slowly coming online, with full service expected to be restored in the next couple of weeks, a bus company official said Thursday.

Last month, at the beginning of the school year, several school routes to Lahainaluna High, Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate schools were temporarily halted, leaving parents scrambling to find ways to get their children to school.

Bus service to Maui High and Maui Waena Intermediate schools were consolidated, which meant some longer wait times for students. The problems stemmed from the new contractor for the routes, Ground Transport, being unable to recruit enough qualified drivers. The problem affected 383 students.

Louis Gomes, president and chief executive of Ground Transport, said that on Wednesday the final two bus routes were restored to Lahainaluna High. One of the three temporarily suspended routes for Lahainaluna was restored on Aug. 21.

Also, next Wednesday, two bus routes servicing both Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate schools will be restored. On Sept. 12, the remaining two routes servicing both schools will be up and running, Gomes said.

Finally, within the next two weeks, more drivers will be added to the Maui High and Maui Waena routes, and they will be able to operate the buses on a normal schedule, Gomes said.

“We truly apologize for the inconvenience this has been causing for the students, the community (and) the parents,” he said Thursday.

Gomes said the situation was beyond the company’s control for the most part.

But, “we are moving forward hiring other drivers,” he said. He added that drivers were being trained. They would be able to begin driving bus routes soon, he said.

Ground Transport continued accepting applications. “It’s been moving along fairly good,” he said.

In a news release late Thursday afternoon, the state Department of Education reported that Maui’s shortage of qualified drivers was at nine, down from 11 two weeks ago. Kauai also has been having problems with a shortage of qualified bus drivers. Its shortage was at seven drivers, down from eight two weeks ago.

Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson said the Education Department was working with school bus contractors to return affected routes to service.

“We truly appreciate the patience shown by our parents, students and staff during this time,” he said.

The bus route suspension has caused an uproar among parents and others affected by the increased traffic around schools. It stemmed from a dispute between former contractor Roberts Hawaii and the Education Department. It said that low-bidder Ground Transport had won a seven-year contract for three routes previously serviced by Roberts, which had held all Maui bus routes. Roberts still has the largest route, Upcountry.

In an Aug. 17 advertisement in The Maui News, Roberts alleged that state schools officials were unfair in awarding the contracts to Ground Transport in a “faulty evaluation process.”

The ad said the Education Department could “immediately fix the school bus driver shortage on Maui by declaring that its contractor is in default for failing to meet its contractual obligations.” The department said that Roberts delayed the contract award process with protests to the state Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs and with an appeal to the Circuit Court.

Rulings were in favor of the department. Then, after months of delays, Ground Transport purchased more than 70 new buses and established baseyards for support operations on Maui.

On Thursday, Gomes acknowledged that his company has lost money and is “not being compensated” when a bus is not on the road. He added that he has weekly meetings with the heads of the Education Department to advise them of the status of new drivers.

In the meantime, Ground Transport has brought eight drivers from Oahu to help with some of the affected routes. When new drivers are hired, the Oahu drivers will return home, Gomes said.

The last two bus routes to come online for Lahainaluna include those that serve the Kapalua area on Kahana Ridge Drive to Hanawai Street; and the lower Lahaina area, beginning at Aholo Road through Front Street to Shaw Street, the department said. Another restored route was to the Kaanapali and Napili-Honokowai areas. That route also serves the upper Front Street area from Hinau Street to Kenui Street, then on Front Street to King Kamehameha III Elementary School.

Affected schools have not penalized students tardy because of late buses and traffic. The department reported that some schools were seeing increased traffic generated by more cars on the road because of the lack of buses, but students and parents appeared to have adapted to the suspended bus service.

For more information about school bus registration, routes or services, call the Get On Board Hotline at (808) 586-0161.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.