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Finance Committee Gives Favorable Recommendation to Extension of Free Bus Fares

By Nathan Christophel
July 20, 2022, 5:27 PM HST
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It looks like a bus ride on the Big Island will continue to be free of charge for at least another two and a half years.

The Hawai‘i County Council Finance Committee on Tuesday, July 19, forwarded Bill 190 to the full council level with a favorable recommendation. The measure would extend the temporary suspension of fares for all Hele-On fixed bus routes and paratransit services through Dec. 31, 2025.

The Keaukaha bus arrives at the Mo’oheau Bus Terminal in Hilo on a day in December 2021. (Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Hele-On is the county’s public transportation provider and is operated by the Hawai‘i County Mass Transit Agency.

Fares have been free since earlier this year after the council approved a measure to suspend fares until Dec. 31, 2023. The free fares were made possible through funds the county received from the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Act.

Bill 190 would extend the suspension of fares until the end of 2025 thanks to additional funds the county received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The federal government allows monies from both acts to be used by transit agencies to pay for transit system operations.

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The suspension does not, however, apply to county-contracted shared-ride services and county-operated curb-to-curb van services operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation.

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“Our long-term goal is to restore credibility with the riding public on the transit system, return people back to Transit, build our ridership so that we can generate more passenger miles, which would allow us to get more federal funds allocated to the state which would then come through the formula to us to support overall operations,” Mass Transit Agency Administrator and General Manager John Andoh told the Finance Committee on Tuesday in response to a question from Councilman Tim Richards.

Richards said that’s one of the questions he has gotten from constituents: If the county’s not charging for Hele-On rides, will it cost more?

“Actually, the way you’ve got it worked out, it’s not going to cost us any more,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re actually going to do better as we build our ridership.”

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Andoh said Richards’ summary was correct, adding that the federal funds that will be used to extend the free fares will cover what the county would have collected in fares otherwise as well as implementation of other improvements being made to the Hele-On system as part of the county’s Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan, which was adopted in 2018.

There also is no local match necessary for the federal dollars being used to cover costs while fares are suspended.

It’s anticipated that free fares will help grow Hele-On ridership by 5%-30%, according to Andoh’s communication to the council in regard to Bill 190. It also will continue efforts to rebuild the Hele-On system. It’s lost ridership during the past decade because of unreliable schedules and bus fleet, other operational and administrative challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill 190 is “intended to remove barriers to riding public transit, boost and rebuild ridership and keep front-line employees and riders safer and socially distanced from each other by eliminating the exchange of fares,” according to the measure’s language.

To gauge the effectiveness of the fare suspension, the measure also includes language saying the county’s mass transit administrator must provide a report to the council no later than July 30 each year. That report will detail the performance of the mass transit system, including passenger trips carried by route, a comparison to the previous year and any other service performance data requested by council members.

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“Extending toll-free fares for our Hele-On buses ensures that our residents can get to and from without worrying about the rising cost of gasoline and other fossil fuels,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in a statement provided to Big Island Now. “We hope our residents will take advantage of the free service and encourage their friends and family to do the same. This is about sustainability, and we commend Administrator Andoh for his hard work to see this through.”

In another mass transit move Tuesday, the Finance Committee also forwarded Bill 188 to the full council level with a favorable recommendation. The legislation would accept nearly $1.9 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act that would be used to cover the operational costs resulting from the COVID pandemic and lost passenger fares through Dec. 31, 2025.

With the average price of gasoline still close to $6 a gallon and a gallon of diesel costing more than $6 on average and high prices for just about everything else, including food and other necessities, putting a strain on people’s wallets, not might be a good time to give Hele-On a try.

“If you’ve never taken a ride, you should check it out, even for just a trip around town,” county spokesman Cyrus Johnasen told Big Island Now via email in May. “It’s free and just may change your perception of public transit on Hawaiʻi Island.”

He said there is no doubt that the Hele-on system has been unreliable in the past. However, the county is working diligently to reform the system so people can trust it.

“With a new fleet eminent, new routes and more consistent times, we’re confident that we will be able to gain ridership and goodwill in the community once again,” Johnasen said.

He added that the improved Hele-On system acts as a catalyst for connecting communities, and with free fares, it offers a transportation alternative for island residents that can save them money. Part of creating a sustainable Hawaiʻi Island, where keiki can thrive and succeed, is ensuring access to vital services, employment and recreational activities.

Sustainability is a top priority for Roth.

“Not only does Hele-on offer an opportunity to connect our residents with vital resources, but it also provides us an opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, greenhouse gas emissions and reduce traffic islandwide,” Johnasen said.

With a new fleet eminent, new routes and more consistent times, he said the county is confident that Hele-On will be able to gain ridership and goodwill in the community once again.

“We would like to encourage our residents to try our new and improved public transportation system,” Roth said in May in a statement provided to Big Island Now. “We know there is a stigma, but if they try, we believe they will be pleasantly surprised with the ease and comfort they’ll find in taking the ride. Suppose we want to create an island home that is sustainable and offers our keiki the ability to thrive and succeed for generations to come. In that case, we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by converting to green energy and modes of transport — Hele-on offers a free and practical way to do just that.”

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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