Help wanted to rescue languishing county mass transit system


Hawaii Island’s mass transit system is carrying a fraction of the passengers compared to a few years ago with a fleet in disrepair, auto and money theft incidents, costly contractors filling gaps, and a past-due multimillion-dollar baseyard project.

Always Investigating looked into the drops in service and what it will take to get things restored.

The biggest impact from all of these issues is service. There have been hundreds of thousands of rides lost in recent years, and we found out that’s having a big impact on the poor and rural areas.

Hawaii County buses used to give more than 1.3 million rides a year — a helpful pickup for locals and visitors in the town areas, a lifeline for others in more rural spots.

“Our routes are very long, from Pahoa all the way up to Kona,” explained county managing director Wil Okabe, “because a lot of these people who are using the bus are using it to go to work at the hotels.”

And no one could argue with the price.

“It was a good thing for the community to have those free bus rides,” said interim mass transit administrator Tiffany Kai, “but then it went to $1, and then a year later we increased the bus fare to $2. We used to keep it (bus fare cash) in our storage in the back room.”

It was from that storage closet that thousands in cash fares disappeared in an as-yet-unsolved theft last year.

But that’s not the only thing mass transit is missing. Hundreds of thousands of rides have evaporated too.

“There was a big change in these last eight years,” Okabe said. “The demand from 1.3 million people who started using the bus is presently 800,000 people using the bus. When Harry (Kim) was first mayor, the fares were free.”

Always Investigating asked, does the county think the decline is due to just the cash fares, or that if more buses were running and working, they’d have more riders?

“That’s one of the things that is concerning to us,” Okabe said.

A crowded baseyard is littered with broken-down buses. About half the previous fleet is operational. Thousands of dollars a month are spent hiring private buses to patch some route gaps, but left in the dust are the areas most in need.

Jen Ruggles represents a part of Puna and is the Hawaii County Council’s Public Safety and Mass Transit Committee chair. She talked to us by phone in between Kona council meetings while we were on Hilo side.

“My biggest concern is the level of service to Puna,” Ruggles said. “Puna is the poorest district in the entire state.”

It’s also the fastest growing, but has the most struggle with transportation.

“Thirty percent of our population do not have vehicles,” Ruggles said. “Those 30 percent are senior, those are disabled, youth, and people who cannot afford it. Thirty percent of our population relies heavily on public transportation.”

Right now, the future of transit operations on Hawaii island is being laid out in a $500,000 master planning process being led by contractor SSFM. Lawmakers want to remind the public to be sure to weigh in with comments and concerns.

“They really need to get involved with the master plan process,” Ruggles said. “This is going to be the next 20 years of our mass transit. As far as what I’ve seen with the consultant and the consultant’s initial plan for Puna, it is not adequate to meet Puna’s needs. It falls remarkably short of meeting the needs of our district.”

Contact Information:

Submit comments for Hawaii County Mass Transit Master Plan at heleonsuggestions@ssfm.com or mail to SSFM International, 99 Aupuni Street, Suite 202, Hilo, HI 96720.

Reach County Councilwoman Jen Ruggles at jen.ruggles@hawaiicounty.gov.

Reach the Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency online here or by phone at (808) 961-8343.

The very way the area was developed is putting the county and residents in a Catch-22.

“The majority of our subdivisions we live in are considered private by the county,” Ruggles explained, “so the county has taken this position that they will not help with road infrastructure improvements that mass transit is saying they need in order to service our residents.”

Always Investigating asked the mayor’s managing director, what can they do about some of the most underserved communities who may be in the most need of additional service?

“We are looking at that plan in regards to the uses of the bus,” Okabe said, “so therefore this master plan that’s coming out very shortly, we will be adjusting the needs of the routes, trying to adjust the routes to ensure that we get the best opportunity for people to use the bus.”

The mass transit agency has applied for several grants, totaling about $1.5 million, which would help pay for more new buses.

Also next year, they hope to move into a way-overdue new $11 million baseyard, a place to keep new buses nice and fix older buses faster.

“These are the conditions that they’re working in,” Okabe said as we walked through the old baseyard together. “As you can see, there’s only I think three buses here in the dock. All this other area here, you can see they’re not able to put the buses here.”

Lawmakers say it’s not just about money, vehicles, space, or master planning.

“First of all, we need a director. It’s been over a year since we’ve had a director,” Ruggles said.

For a while, the mass transit division was paying for essentially two directors — one a temp, the other a longtime civil service staff. Okabe says they’re narrowing down a permanent hire from about a half-dozen applicants. The current interim administrator will stay on to run paratransit, which carries about 100,000 riders a year.

“We’re in the process of getting an administrator for this particular position,” Okabe said of the mass transit boss spot. “We’ll know within the next seven days.”

The county confirmed Tuesday the hiring of a new mass transit administrator, who will take over after years of disarray.

Maria Aranquiz, a nine-year veteran of Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, will be relocating to the island and is slated to start her new job mid-February.

“We need a big change. We need a big shift in the management,” Ruggles said. “Overall, I think it’s just been a lack of competent and adequate management.”

One big thing still outstanding for the transit department is an audit of transit’s cash handling that’s been in the works. We’ll follow up on what that audit uncovers, the efforts to get the issues in the office solved, and the results of the mass transit master plan.

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