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Mayor Kim Promises Transit Improvements

May 17, 2019, 8:00 AM HST (Updated June 20, 2019, 2:23 PM)
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Downtown Hilo bus station PC: Sierra Hagg

The Hele-On Bus, the main bus system on the Big Island, has faced a lot of criticism. A former driver referred to it as “absolutely deplorable.” He criticized the system for poor management, unrealistic routes and timing, and a lack of key stops and regular maintenance.

The transit system has also been regularly condemned for its late pickups, and rude and unhelpful employees.

In addition, the Hele-On has seen a steady turnover in administrative positions.

The Hele-On is currently running with just 13 county buses running out of a fleet of 55. The fleet comes in a variety of colors and designs and has 29 routes, the rest are being handled with day rentals of private-sector buses, school buses and county vans.

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Hawai‘i County has two double-decker buses. One, which was purchased in 2009 for $900,000 used to ferry resort workers to and from Kona, has rarely been used due to breakdowns. The other was recently donated from Maui for the disabled, but there are concerns over the reliability of hand-me-downs. All of these issues lay on the shoulders on Mass Transit’s five mechanics.

Hele-on double-decker bus. PC: BIN

The county is aiming to purchase one new bus with a budget of $600,000 per year.

Mass Transit was given 30 recommendations after the cash audit they faced in January 2018 found $30,000 in bus cash receipts on a break room table and stuffed in an unsecured safe. They have now installed video cameras in areas where cash is kept, have hired an accounting clerk and plan to begin numbering bus tickets and receipts.

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Although the average rider pays $2 for a one-way ride (with the exception of children under four, senior citizens, and the disabled) the county ends up paying around $11.77 per rider. Therefore, Mass Transit has a  $15.7 million budget relying on approximately $4.6 million in general fund revenues from property taxes and federal grants, fuel taxes and license and permit fees to fund the remainder.

Contrary to Kohala Councilman Tim Richard’s proposal to remove Mass Transit’s general fund budget, the 2019 budget has increased to $25 million dollars from the GET budget and $9.5 million will be used for Mass Transit salary, wages and equipment.

Several Big Island lawmakers say the county needs to catch up on roads and the public Hele-On bus system before it spends the money elsewhere.

Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-Kona) said, “When we have a functional bus system in West Hawai‘i, maybe I’d be willing to consider other uses, but for now, there’s a lot of room for improvement in that area.”

“We are going to develop a system primarily for the local customers,” said Mayor Harry Kim. “Hawai‘i island is quite different. We have people that leave Hilo every morning at 3:30 a.m. to go on a two hour bus ride to work at South Kohala District.”

He had just gotten out of a meeting specifically addressing the issues of public transit involving Ed Sniffen, Ryan Fujii, the Department of Transportation, Brenda Carreira (the new director of Mass Transit), and the finance director and managing director.

Mayor Kim believes the first step in making improvements was the recent action of hiring a new director and creating a beautiful base yard for the transit system. Also, since the GET budget has increased there will be additional funds for new buses so that we stop using leftovers and surplus.

He was very pleased with the willingness of the county council to pass the .50 GET tax referring to it as a “tremendous movement of funds for transportation.”

“The base yard was just opened two or three months ago,” Mayor Kim said. “They were operating in a space with no space or equipment or nothing. It is a mental thing and a physical thing where all the county buses are kept and serviced and repaired.”

In reference to  the bus director, when Mayor Kim first took office, he responded, “Truthfully, I was dissatisfied with her work and I told her great improvements needed to be made. She admitted she was not fully qualified for that type of job and not trained for it, and didn’t receive training and that was our [the government’s] fault.”

Mayor Kim believed the director who took her place was tremendously experienced but left because she believed Hawai‘i was not the place for her.

He went on to explain, “I immediately stepped in and picked the person I have now [Carreira]. She was the prosecutor for the county and the administrator for Roberts Hawai‘i and she is the best of the best and has been in four months or so.”

He is aiming to update the bus systems because he felt they were outdated. He also is aiming to improve the route system.

“I think if you talk to anybody who works there now, they will express confidence we are identifying the things that need to be fixed and we have tremendous help from the Department of Transportation from the state,said Kim.

You can find more about the Hele-On schedule by calling (808) 961-8744 or by visiting the official website.

Sierra Hägg
Sierra is a recent graduate of William S. Richardson School of Law. She grew up in Puna and attended Christian Liberty Academy. She went on to get a major in psychology and minor in political science from the University of California, Davis.
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