County and Justice Division settle Hele-On ADA criticism

Disabled drivers on Hawaii County’s Hele-On bus system should have an easier time after improvements were made to a settlement agreement in response to an investigation by the US Department of Justice into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the agreement signed by the district’s attorneys and the judiciary this week, the district made a number of changes to its policies and procedures to forestall a civil lawsuit. The Justice Department’s investigation dates back to 2019, said assistant corporate attorney Malia Hall.

“They did a full investigation and, at the end of the day, commended our commitment to change things before they were done,” Hall said. “We introduced changes early and often and an amicable agreement was reached.”

The investigation began on the basis of a complaint from a driver that, among other ADA compliance issues, wheelchair lifts were not working on the buses. The agreement states that the district has “frequently used buses with chronically inoperative elevators” for a month or more.

“This agreement will eliminate transit accessibility for the countless people with disabilities who live on the Big Island,” said Acting US Attorney Judith Philips for the Hawaii District in a statement. “Our office strongly supports efforts to improve access and inclusion under the ADA.”

It is not the first time that the district’s public transport system has come under federal control. The district also concluded a settlement agreement in 2015 after a passenger sued the district for not providing ADA-compliant transport.

In the most recent settlement, the district agreed to report broken elevators immediately and to take the vehicles out of service until the elevators are repaired.

In addition, the bus driver will announce each stop at the request of a person with a disability and at least announce at transfer points with other fixed lines, other important intersections and destination points, as well as intervals along a route that are sufficient to allow people with visual impairments or other disabilities based on their location.

The county will also build bus stops in places more accessible to disabled drivers, provide thorough staff training, and upgrade its paratransit system to cater for drivers. And the county will appoint a responsible officer to keep a record of complaints, keep records, and submit regular reports to the Department of Justice.

Interim mass transit administrator John Andoh said he was very familiar with how the settlements work with the judiciary, having worked in the transit division in Jackson, Mississippi, when it was under a settlement arrangement. He said he named paratransit coordinator Tiffany Kai as the person in charge called for in the agreement.

“We have created an action plan that breaks down the elements and what we do to implement those elements,” Andoh said.

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