East Hawaii News

County to Offer Free Bus Fares

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County Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh told council members that his agency is ready to move ahead with the free rides.

Hele-On buses will soon be free to ride.

The Hawai‘i County Council on Wednesday approved the second and final reading of Bill 105, which temporarily suspends fares for all fixed bus routes and paratransit services offered by Hele-On until Dec. 31, 2023. The Council adopted the measure 7-0, with members Tim Richards and Aaron Chung excused.

The county’s legislative body also waived the five-day period for reconsideration of the bill.

“I think all of our colleagues have been in full support of this and look forward to continued support of this wonderful program for public transportation,” said Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who introduced the bill and made the motion to adopt the measure.

County Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh told council members that his agency is ready to move ahead with the free rides.

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“We are prepared to launch the program upon approval by this council, signature by the mayor, and we started to notify the public to start that transition,” said Andoh. “So, come the effective date of the fare free, we don’t have outstanding passes or tickets and we have a clean slate.”

A rider alert posted Jan. 6 on the Hele-On website stated the sale of bus tickets and Kako‘o Paratransit tickets was discontinued effective Jan. 17 in anticipation of the free fares.

“Please use up your tickets on hand,” the alert read.

Part of the intent of the measure, according to an accompanying communication to Bill 105, is to remove barriers to riding public transit and boost and rebuild ridership.

Andoh’s request for the council to act on the bill pointed to a declining Hele-On ridership because of unreliable schedules and fleet, other operational and administrative challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic. It also stated the system has seen a $560,000 loss in revenue from passengers.

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“In (fiscal year) 2009, when the county had a fare-free systems, ridership jumped from 800,000 passenger trips per year to 1.2 million passenger trips by (fiscal year) 2013, when the program had ended and fares were restored,” said the request, adding that passenger trips have since declined to 290,000 a year.

Mass Transit anticipates the fare-free rides could result in ridership growth of 5%-30%.

“Some other benefits created by fare free include helping create a quality community and connecting people to opportunity, driving the economy through increased employment, substantially increasing transit ridership, removing barriers to using transit, reducing vehicle congestion and improving air quality,” the request stated.

Mass Transit will use grant funding to cover operational costs during the temporary suspension of fares.
Andoh’s request to the council said the Federal Transit Administration has allowed transit agencies to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover transit operational costs.

“Which includes the suspension of fares, as long as the funds used pay for transit operational and administrative costs,” the request reads.

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That adds another benefit of the fare-free rides — an additional layer of protection against COVID-19 for transit employees.

“Since March 17, 2020, when the pandemic started, there (have) been many transit agencies that (have) gone fare free as a way to rebuild ridership and to keep front-line employees safe from direct interactions with passengers,” Andoh’s request said.

In other Hele-On-related business Wednesday, the council also approved the second and final reading of Bill 109, which appropriates grant funds in the amount of $10,522,667 to be used for rehabilitation and purchase of buses and related equipment and the construction of bus-related facilities.

According to a communication to the council about Bill 109, the grant was awarded to the county by the state Department of Transportation through the FTA’s Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities program. Mass Transit plans to use the money to purchase 20 buses of varying sizes and for the design, environmental assessment and land acquisition for the Kailua-Kona base yard.

And the council passed Resolution 310-22 to accept a donation of $75,000 in services from Uber to be used for a COVID vaccination transportation program.

“The purpose of this project through Uber, we were able to get a donation to transport island residents to vaccination clinics and COVID testing clinics across the island,” Andoh told the council.

He said the program started in September 2021 and will continue through December this year, as long as funds remain available. There are no county funds required for the program’s operation.

The program is part of efforts to ensure vaccination for island residents and make sure there’s no barrier to getting to testing sites. Andoh was able to launch a similar program in his previous position in Columbia, S.C. He used that connection to bring the program to the Big Island.

“Uber offered donations to various transportation agencies and nonprofits across the country,” Andoh said.

To use the program, an Uber account is necessary. A voucher in the amount of $15 also must be downloaded from the Mass Transit Agency website.

Participants can travel to any vaccination site shown on the Uber app and defined on the county’s vaccination website. Up to four vouchers for rides are available — one to go to the vaccination site, one to get home, another to go to a vaccination site for a booster shot and another to go home.

The program is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

Once the $75,000 is expended, the program ends.

In this screenshot from the livestream, Hawai’i County Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh speaks to County Council members during their meeting Wednesday, Feb. 9.
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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