East Hawaii News

Andoh Committed to Steering Mass Transit, Hele-On System to The ‘Next Level’

By Nathan Christophel
February 17, 2022, 2:00 PM HST
* Updated February 17, 1:59 PM
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John Andoh says he was hooked on public transportation at a young age.

“I’ve had a passion for public transit management since age 5,” Andoh told Big Island Now.

Andoh, who has been managing transit systems in various states for 21 years, said it was during a field trip to see how the public transit system in San Jose, Calif., worked when he met a planner there who he’s still friends with to this day.

Hawai’i County Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh stands by his desk for a portrait at Mass Transit headquarters in Hilo. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

“He showed me what it took to plan bus routes and make schedules, and I got a chance to work with him at 13 years old as an intern,” Andoh said, adding it was that internship that put him on track for a career in managing transit systems.

But it’s not the past that occupies Andoh’s thoughts now. Instead, it’s the future of public transportation on the Big Island and bringing the Hawai‘i County Mass Transit Agency back into order.

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Andoh officially took the wheel at Mass Transit full-time as of Jan. 3. He served as interim administrator for about six months prior and is the fourth person to take on the post in as many years.

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He wants to make public transportation accessible to Big Island residents and visitors so they can depend on the agency’s services. Mass Transit is responsible for the Hele-On system, which includes the county’s bus system, a ride-share taxi program, bikeshare services and paratransit services, among others.

Andoh also wants to make Hele-On’s services visible, viable and sustainable for today and future generations.

“The service of the Mass Transit Agency is a critical element of Mayor (Mitch) Roth’s sustainability plans to make Hawai‘i County an excellent place to live and work,” county spokesman Cyrus Johnasen told Big Island Now. “Following the recommendations of our Sustainability Summit in 2021, Mr. Andoh has begun transitioning the fleet to zero emissions, increasing routes, creating new mobility programs, building facilities and connecting constituents to the opportunity to help drive the economy forward. Efforts started immediately after his hire as the interim Mass Transit administrator and will continue into the future.”

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Johnasen said the Mass Transit Agency has struggled for many years to increase ridership, be innovative and deliver the recommendations of the county’s Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, which were adopted in 2018.

“Mr. Andoh has proven to be a transformational and ‘out of the box’ thinker that we feel can take the Mass Transit Agency to the next level,” he said. “In an interim capacity, he has delivered many items and positive changes to the agency that had not occurred in the last three years since the master plan was adopted.”

Andoh plans to work hard, using the master plan as his guide and building relationships to make his and Roth’s vision for public transportation on the island a reality.

“Mr. Andoh has committed to Mayor Roth that he will be here for the long haul to rebuild the agency, forge new relationships and deliver what Hawai‘i County residents have been expecting from the Mass Transit Agency for many years,” Johnasen said.

Andoh said the master plan set forth a framework to guide Mass Transit for the next 20 years, and 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,” he said.

Now that there is increased bus services, more door-to-door demand type services, a bikeshare program and soon a vanpool program to connect commuters, the Hele-On transit system is well on the way to achieve the goals established by the master plan, Andoh added.

Johnasen said Mass Transit has been in transition for the past several years, and project delivery was slow at best.

“As a result, the agency continued to lose ridership and become highly unreliable for the county constituents,” he said. “Mr. Andoh’s efforts have been to restore credibility, stabilize the agency and grow the agency towards the future.”

Andoh said that when he arrived last year, COVID-19 had taken a toll on the agency’s ability to deliver services, too, so there was a need to rebuild operations and capital to set the framework for implementation of the master plan.

He saw several issues standing in the way, including the need to define the role of Mass Transit employees, improve employee morale, rebuild the Hele-On bus fleet, market the service, implement actions from the past not fully implemented or in progress, revise the budget and improve the agency’s credibility.

To correct those problems, Andoh, guided by the master plan, will foster relationships with the island’s communities, Mass Transit employees and other county offices, agencies and departments.

And actions speak louder than words.

Andoh said his biggest accomplishment so far as leader of Mass Transit is implementation of the many elements of the master plan, and Johnasen listed a litany of work the new administrator has done since taking on the post, including:

  • Implementing new transit service changes from the master plan.
  • Assuming operation of the Mo‘oheau Bus Terminal.
  • Forming a partnership with the state Department of Education to purchase bus passes for students.
  • Starting discussions with the University of Hawai’i at Hilo and Hawai’i Community College regarding a U-Pass program.
  • Starting credit card sales online at Mass Transit headquarters and Mo‘oheau Bus Terminal.
  • Launching new Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube pages for Hele-On.
  • Developing a new Hele-On and Hele-On Kako‘o logos.
  • Integrating Kona Trolley into Hele-On.
  • Integrating the HIBike ridesharing service into Hele-On.
  • Developing a new partnership with Lyft and Uber for shared-ride transportation.
  • Starting mobile ticket app sales via Token Transit.
  • Launching a new trip planner in partnership with Moovit and Bing Maps. The agency is awaiting implementation of trip planner with Google and Apple maps.
  • Implementing actions with the Department of Justice regarding American with Disabilities Act complaints.
  • Launching partnership with Uber for transporting residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Working with the state Department of Transportation to finalize grants and get them implemented for expending funds.
  • Continuing work to bring buses back into service. A total of 14 buses have been brought back into service since Andoh took the reins at Mass Transit and new buses are expected to be part of the Hele-On fleet in July.
Mass Transit Administrator John Andoh speaks during a recent County Council meeting. (Screenshot from meeting recording)

He also was instrumental in getting a measure passed by the Hawai’i County Council that makes bus fares free through Dec. 31, 2023.

“The agency has become high-performing and has begun delivering the expectations that all other departments, offices and agencies are expected to deliver when serving county constituents,” Johnasen said.

While much has already been accomplished, Andoh said there are challenges still ahead. He said replacement of the bus fleet, training staff in zero emission technology and implementation of technology to improve work processes of the agency are among immediate challenges. Throughout the next 5-10 years, Andoh said replacing the general excise tax with another funding source for the agency beyond 2030, staffing and ensuring there are enough drivers for buses are some of the challenges Mass Transit will face.

He’s developing action plans and strategies to face those issues head-on and is asking the Big Island to give the new Hele-On a chance as it improves services and service availability.

“Look at what has been done in the last six months,” Andoh said. “Look at the overall improvements to date in service and technology as examples.”

He added that Hele-On is only going to continue to get better.

“It will be our personal goal to connect people to community,” he said.

As administrator, Andoh is responsible for leading the day-to-day operations of Mass Transit, implementing elements of the master plan, supporting the Transportation Commission, pursing grant funds, transforming the Hele-On bus fleet to zero emissions and purchasing a new bus fleet, leading policy development for the agency and planning for a balanced, safe and efficient Big Island public transportation system.

Additional responsibilities of the position include promoting increased use of sustainable forms of transportation, such as walking, biking and transit use islandwide, and working to improve equity in transportation policies, programs and services.

His prior transit experience includes previously serving as executive director and CEO of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority (The COMET) in Columbia, S.C., as well as prior positions with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, Texas; Yuma County Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority in Yuma, Ariz.; Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in Stateline, Nev.; and City of Elk Grove, Calif.

Andoh also did part-time work with the City of Escalon, Calif.; City of Burlington, N.C.; and Town of Quartzsite, Ariz., improving and expanding transit systems.

He even worked as the transportation specialist for Hawai‘i County seven years ago, which is how Mayor Mitch Roth became familiar with his skills.

“The mayor heard about my transit skills and saw my mobility innovations work at my last job at The COMET and shared his vision on what he wanted to do with transportation and invited me to apply to join his administration,” Andoh said.

Johnasen confirmed that Roth was aware that Andoh previously worked for Hawai’i County Mass Transit and observed his abilities at The COMET in South Carolina. He added that Andoh’s passion for public transportation and dedication to equitable transportation access for Big Island residents made him a good choice for Mass Transit administrator.
“His innovative skills, dedication to the industry and passion were perfect for this administration to bring the Mass Transit Agency to the next level,” Johnasen said.

Roth agrees.

“We were excited in selecting John to join the Mass Transit Agency with his depth and breadth of public transportation management experience” stated the mayor in a press release announcing Andoh’s full-time hire.  “He will do an exceptional job of improving public transportation here on our island and his work that he has done in the last six months on our master plan is amazing. We know that he will bring that same passion, expertise and vigor to our island, as we all work to make Hawai’i Island sustainable for generations to come.”

County Managing Director Lee Lord said Andoh brings a wealth of transportation experience from a variety of communities.

“I am confident that he can bring new innovations to the Mass Transit Agency and rejuvenate our public transit system that has been faced with challenges,” said Lord.

Andoh has a master’s degree in public administration from University of Phoenix as well as a graduate certificate in transportation management from San Jose State University.

Andoh is a certified community transit manager by the Community Transportation Association of America, as well as a certified public manager through Arizona State University. He was featured in Mass Transit magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2011, Association of Commuter Transportation Top 40 Under 40 in 2016 and Columbia Business Magazine’s Top 50 in 2019 and 2020.

“I am very grateful for this opportunity to return to Hawai‘i County to make Hele-On the best that it can be,” Andoh said in the county’s press release. “Since originally coming to this island in 2014 and falling in love with the people and the environment and the island as a whole, I am looking toward building Hele-On to be an economic driver for the island and achieve the goals of Mayor Roth’s administration towards a better sustainable quality of life for island residents.”

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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