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Cuts, short-term contracts, slow procurements hinder service

By Arvin Temkar

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 3, 2012) – If Karinda Faray had a car, it might take her half an hour to get from her home in Harmon to her job in Tamuning. But she doesn't.

Faray, a soft-spoken woman with a wide smile, gazed quietly out the window of a nearly full Guam Regional Transport Authority bus early Friday morning. Her daily commute on public transportation stretches over two hours each way, including time waiting for the bus and walking to work.

But Faray, 48, is grateful for the bus. She can't afford a car, nor does she have a driver's license. Without public transportation she wouldn't be able to get to work, go shopping, or do many of the things car owners take for granted.

Her frustrations echo those of many bus riders who over the years have said the system needs more buses and more bus routes to accommodate people from all over the island. Local leaders are hoping to do just that with a new bus operations contract, and with a new fleet of government buses.

Six days a week, at around 7 a.m., the caretaker gets off the bus at Guam Premier Outlet and walks about 45 minutes to the home of her client, an elderly woman. By 7 p.m., when Faray is leaving work, the public bus has stopped running so she takes a tourist trolley back home instead.

'We try our best'

Despite a grinding daily schedule necessitated by an infrequent bus schedule -- she's awake at 4:30 a.m. and doesn't return home until 10 p.m. -- she isn't complaining.

"Everything is hard," she said. "We try our best to go to work, and give thanks... for the bus."

Public transit service cuts over the past year have made life more difficult for people who depend on buses. Their lives are dictated by a schedule -- a schedule that has become less reliable, and less convenient.

The Guam Regional Transit Authority has cut its bus fleet from 15 to 10, slashed service on Sundays and holidays, and reduced hours so that people like Faray, who get out of work later in the evening, are stuck with limited options. People with disabilities also have been affected -- now only five of the transit authority's buses are for Para-Transit, down from seven.

Reasons for service cuts range from inefficiency in the bus routes to budget constraints.

Rising fees

One factor has been rising contractor fees. In the past three years, contractor fees jumped about 50 percent. While the transit authority once paid around $45 per hour per bus, it now pays $65, said Felix Dungca, executive manager for the transit authority.

Bruce Kloppenberg, president of Kloppenberg Enterprises, the bus contractor, said the price hike is due to rising fuel prices.

But the price flux may not have happened so severely -- or at least not right away -- if circumstances were different.

The transit authority contracts services on a month-to-month basis, and has done so since 2003. The month-to-month system began as an emergency measure following a lawsuit that stopped the original bidding process, but has since become standard procedure, Dungca said.

Ideally, a contractor would hold a multi-year contract -- not a month-to-month contract, he said. If a multi-year contract had been in place, Kloppenberg Enterprises wouldn't have been able to change its service fees for at least a few years. This would allow for services to be planned and maintained based on stable prices. But because Kloppenberg Enterprises enters a new contract each month the company can change prices as necessary, making it difficult for the transit authority to budget ahead.

And Kloppenberg Enterprises has been the only bidder for the bus monthly contracts for the past four years, said Dungca. An attempt to attract new competitors yielded no results.

New RFP attempt

This isn't to say the bus company hasn't been a good or cooperative contractor, the transit authority director added. But competition, he said, would be healthy.

Since the 2003 lawsuit, the transit authority hasn't been able to put out a request for proposals, or RFP -- a standard method of attracting companies to bid for contracts, and the method that would set up a multi-year contract.

Two months ago, after several years had passed and there was little progress in implementing an alternate bidding method, the transit authority board decided to get the help of the attorney general's office and Sen. Tom Ada, chairman of the legislature's transportation committee, in disputing the findings of the lawsuit and moving forward in a new RFP attempt, said Dungca.

If an RFP gets off the ground -- which could happen by February -- the transit authority finally will be able to offer a multi-year contract, which would stabilize prices and perhaps attract competitors, he said.

"I'm optimistic that we don't have a situation that there's only one provider on this island," Ada said.

Bruce Kloppenberg was confident that his company would still offer the best rates, especially since it already owns a fleet of buses. A competitor would have to invest in its own fleet, driving up prices, he said. But that could change if the transit authority acquires its own buses.

New bus funding

The transit authority was awarded $1.5 million in federal funding to purchase eight to 10 new buses about two years ago, Dungca said.

It would take some time -- possibly until June 2013 -- to get those buses, said Dungca. The specifications for the buses are just being drawn now, and the procurement process will begin this month, he said. The transit authority was "bogged down" and couldn't get to the bus procurement when it was awarded the funding, he said.

Public transport users are used to waiting. Junie Mick, 43 of Yigo, said he's been taking the bus for 10 years. Over the years he's gotten to know regulars on his route.

"The people who ride the bus are like a family," he said, standing outside a bus stop and puffing on a cigarette he'd bummed from another rider.

He's even gone out for drinks with people at the bus stop. There's more than enough time, he said. Sometimes the wait is more than an hour.

Riders face more problems than waiting, Mick said. With less buses, there are more people crammed into the ones remaining. There were an average of 22,000 riders a month in 2011, according to transit authority data.

Ave Pirante, 58, got on the bus at Chamorro Village one morning recently because he didn't want to risk being left behind by a crowded bus in Agat, where he lives. His brother-in-law dropped him off at Chamorro Village early, so he waited at the bus stop for more than an hour and a half to catch the 7:30 a.m. bus. Pirante and Mick both said they've watched people at bus stops get passed over because the bus was full.

Faray, with more than two decades of riding Guam's buses under her belt, has seemingly infinite poise. Not only does the caregiver wait for the bus every day, she's also waiting for her tax refunds, years past due. She called the Department of Revenue and Taxation recently to inquire about her refunds, since she couldn't drive over there and ask in person.

"They say I have to have patience," Faray said. "I said, 'I always have patience.'"

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