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Upgrades Ahead: Mass Transit Hits Full Throttle on Bus Improvements

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Bus riders grumbled and groaned, and the transportation provider listened.

After receiving a litany of complaints and suggestions from passengers, Hawaiʻi County Mass Transit has taken to heart what those people were saying by ushering in a new set of standards aimed at making the riding experience, not only more convenient but practical and enjoyable, too.

The changes have been a long time coming.

Adopted in 2018, the county is finally throttling ahead with improvements outlined in its Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan.

“The master plan sets a framework to guide the Mass Transit Agency for the next 20 years,” said Hawai’i County Mass Transit Interim Director John Andoh, who took over control of the beleaguered department six months ago. “In order to make Hele-On an economic driver for the county to create community, connect people to quality-of-life opportunities, increase jobs, improve air quality and the environment, and help achieve sustainability for the county, a new multi-modal public transportation system is in order. The master plan helps get Hele-On to achieve that.”

People wait for the bus at a Hele-On terminal in Hilo. (Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Hele-On is the county’s public transportation provider. The double-stacked buses are ubiquitous sights around the island. But just as commonplace as the sight of a large bus rumbling down the Big Island’s roads were complaints from the public on the inconsistent, unreliable service the system provided.

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Namely, the outdated vehicles were often broken down, out of service and, when they were running, less than punctual. Those unfortunate defects spelled disaster for workers who relied on the system to get across and around the island to their jobs and other necessities or events.

But after pushing through those difficulties and a litany of other issues, including the lack of consistent leadership as well as logistical problems during the pandemic, the county is hitting the gas pedal for improvement.

“The Hele-On transit system has not changed in 15 years,” Andoh said.

In August, Andoh went before the Hawai’i County Council to lay out all the department’s problems. The agency has struggled for years with issues ranging from reliability of bus routes, schedules to planning, contract oversight, a lack of performance standards, marketing, customer service and internal leadership, among others, he said.

And the COVID-19 pandemic only added to the agency’s woes.

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The council heard Andoh’s internal audit loud and clear.

On Sept. 5, the county agreed to move ahead with putting the Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan into action – long overdue by many bus riders’ estimates.

Included in the envisioned changes are grievances the public aired when officials were looking for feedback on what would make the transit system better.

“We continuously get feedback from riders and drivers on how to improve the service,” Andoh said.

‘It’s Gonna Be Fun, It’s Gonna Be Shiny’

Delayed or not, several changes have been put in place in the past few months, including the implementation of several new routes, later-running buses and new Sunday and holiday services.
When it comes to Sunday and holiday services, three bus routes offered such service under the old format. Now, there are 12.

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“As the community responds and demand is requested for additional Sunday/holiday service, it will be added to those respected routes,” Andoh said.

The Hele-On system has also will provide additional evening services, particularly in areas where demand is great such as Pāhoa and Kailua-Kona, and for people who need transportation between Hilo and Kona.

While the master plan outlines a detailed blueprint for improvement, Andoh said that, for the most part, it’s been feedback from riders that made the difference. That feedback has resulted in revisions to some bus schedules to improve timing and performance and even the addition of new services.

“I want to believe once we’re able to implement all of the actions of this master plan, this county’s going to have a very robust, multi-modal public transit system with a brand-new fleet, with the appropriate infrastructure to support that operation, and it’s going to make the transit system high-performing to where we’re connecting people to opportunities,” Andoh said.

He added that the new Hele-On could even get to a point where it can compete with the automobile, adding that people might consider not driving their cars and instead take advantage of the public system.

“It’s gonna be attractive, it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be shiny,” Andoh said.

More Work To Be Done, But Improvements Taking Shape

The overall product is still not without its flaws.

Regarding some routes, full additions have yet to be implemented because of a driver shortage. Those routes include the 102, 103 and 104, all intra-Hilo routes that go into the Kaumana, Waiakea Uka and Mohouli areas.

Once more drivers can be hired by Roberts Hawai’i, the company with which the county partners to provide drivers for Hele-On buses, service on those routes will go until 7 p.m. The goal is to add them by February 2022.

That said, a lot has been done since September.

Perhaps some of the largest changes have been new routes, including a Waimea shuttle bus; a Mohouli service in Hilo; routes for Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Paradise Park and Fern Acres; changes to the intra-Kona services; a Green Line between Honokaʻa and Kona Commons in Kailua-Kona; and the Blue Line, which takes riders from the Moʻoheau Bus Terminal over Saddle Road to the South Kohala resorts and the West Hawaiʻi Civic Center in Kailua-Kona.

There also have been technological advances made in terms of how Hele-On riders can purchase fares and plan their trips.

The most recent change was the addition of hourly service on weekends beginning Nov. 14 for Route 40, the Hilo/Pahoa bus; the inclusion of a bus stop in Leilani Estates; an extra trip on Route 60, the Hilo/Waimea bus; and the removal of lunch breaks on Route 401, a new route that operates between Pāhoa at Kea’au-Pāhoa Road and Kahakai Boulevard and Hawaiian Beaches, Seaview and Kalapana with timed connections to Route 40.

Even smaller changes are being made as Mass Transit hears from riders. An example is the change in Route 102, the Kaumana bus, which now leaves from the Moʻoheau Bus Terminal in Downtown Hilo 15 minutes after every hour instead of at the top of the hour for its trip up Waianuenue Avenue and Kaumana Drive.

Riders now can make purchases with a debit or credit card at the Mo’oheau terminal in Downtown Hilo. The Hele-On website now has a widget where you can plan your bus trip. Riders can even purchase bus fares via their smartphones now by downloading the Token Transit app. Hele-On is also now on social media.

Another new service is Hele-On Kako’o, a paratransit service that serves people with disabilities which includes a flex route that helps people within a mile of the route who are unable to get to a bus stop but need to catch a ride.

More upgrades are coming, as well.

New buses will be added to the fleet with myriad amenities, including Wi-Fi, automated announcements, a low floor so disability devices can simply roll on and even a new paint scheme, among others. And it will also be a system that can grow with an island community that continues to expand.

“The end product, we’re gonna start looking like transit in other states and other cities,” Andoh said. “Something the island has deserved for a very long time.”

Even More Improvements Slated

There are several more changes set out in the master plan that will be implemented throughout the next few years.

Upcoming changes and additions to Hele-On could include:

  • Launching a vanpool program.
  • Studying the implementation of free bus fares for two years.
  • Replacement of the entire Hele-On fleet with new electric, hydrogen and diesel-hybrid buses.
  • Restructure of the shared-ride taxi program
  • Additional trips added on Route 90 (the Pāhala/South Kohala route), a new route in Kailua-Kona and a new route from Volcano to Ocean View.
  • Conversion of Route 60 to flex service to allow the bus to flex 1 mile off route, like the Waimea shuttle bus route and Route 403, which operates between Keaʻau and Fern Acres.
  • Use of vans for Hele-On Kakoʻo.
  • Construction of transit hubs in Pāhoa, Kailua-Kona, Waimea and Hilo.
  • Additional maintenance staff to support maintenance efforts of a new fleet.
  • Continuous training of staff to understand Mass Transit administration, operations and maintenance.
  • Increased marketing and community outreach about Hele-On and its services.
  • A new Hele-On website.
  • Free HIBIKE rides for Hele-On riders.

Formalization of bus stops and additional bus shelters added island-wide. To read the master plan, click here.

To find bus routes, plan your next bus trip or for more information, visit the Hele-On website.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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