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Big Island’s Hele-On bus system plagued by aging fleet, supply chain issues

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People wait as a Hele-On bus pulls up in December and another waits at the Mo‘oheau Bus Terminal in downtown Hilo. Screenshot from video by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now

Since the beginning of August, the Twitter feed of Hele-On, the County of Hawaiʻi’s public transport bus service, has been filled with notices of cancellations and delays.

Two time slots for Route 90 from Pāhala to the South Kohala resorts were canceled on Thursday. Route 103, the Waiākea Uka bus in Hilo, was delayed an hour at one point Wednesday. The remainder of Route 301, a Waimea circulator route, was canceled Wednesday afternoon. Route 2 from Mo‘oheau Bus Terminal in downtown Hilo to Kona was canceled Monday afternoon.

Some of the recent cancellations and delays have been caused by traffic congestion, roadwork, traffic crashes or other extenuating circumstances. But a cursory look at the bus system’s tweets from the past couple of months tells an all-too-familiar story.

Mechanical issues and bus shortages are once again causing headaches for riders and drivers. People’s frustration has often been apparent in the past couple of months.

Riders have had to tool around the Mo‘oheau Bus Terminal for hours in the late afternoon sun, waiting for a bus to Kona, including parents with children. Others have waited at a bus stop for a ride that would never come, forced to call a ride-share service to get to work. Security guards at the terminal and other bus stops throughout Hilo are likely getting tired of being asked if and when a bus will arrive — it’s not necessarily their job to know, but they help anyway. There have even been some intense conversations between people waiting for a bus and Hele-On employees at the terminal.

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Some drivers have asked why more county-owned buses aren’t on the road and others wonder if changes to the Hele-On system are being made too quickly.

It’s all reminiscent of a time in the not-so-distant past when instability in the county Mass Transit Agency and problems with buses were commonplace for a public transportation system that, to put it nicely, was sub-par.

John Andoh, Mass Transit administrator and Hele-On’s general manager, admits there are issues right now, but says they haven’t gotten out of hand.

He said they are part of the growing pains of a bus system that has been expanding since the County adopted its Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan in 2018 and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s expected during a pandemic as well as when various pieces have to be aligned to mesh well together,” Andoh told Big Island Now in an email. “Any system change will experience rough patches before smoothing over.”

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The main culprit behind the recent mechanical problems is an issue that has been constant for several years, even before the master plan was implemented. It is the age of the county’s bus fleet. The average age of buses in the fleet is 18 years. Some buses have 1 million miles or more on their odometers.

Plans are to replace the aging fleet, but it won’t happen overnight. Andoh reported during a Sept. 7 meeting of the Hawai‘i County Council’s Public Works and Mass Transit Committee that the fleet will hopefully be completely replaced by 2025.

“It will take two years for the full new fleet to be delivered and available for use,” he told Big Island Now in an email.

Andoh said the County is soliciting bids and proposals for a total of 35 new buses that would effectively replace the county fleet. But the first new vehicles — four commuter buses, eight transit buses and three hydrogen cutaway buses — are not expected to arrive until next year, at the earliest.

That means Hele-On will continue to have to cope for the foreseeable future with an older, donated fleet that is breaking down and failing, leading to the majority of the delays and cancellations since August. Bus route cancellations and some delays are directly tied to vehicle availability.

Hawai‘i County Mass Transit Agency Administrator and Hele-On general manager John Andoh speaks Sept. 7 during a meeting of the county council’s Public Works and Mass Transit Committee. (Screenshot from video)
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The current Hele-On fleet consists of 39 county-owned buses and 31 buses from Roberts Hawai’i, which is contracted to provide buses when the County cannot. Nine county buses and 29 buses owned by Roberts were in service as of the end of September.

Andoh said Hele-On has begun prioritizing routes in case of vehicle shortage, with lower-performing routes sometimes being suspended until a bus becomes available. A process is also being worked out with Roberts to ensure operationally how vehicles can be assigned at varying pullouts and that hours of service remain unchanged.

“We are continuing to work to bring more (Mass Transit Agency)-owned buses back into service as well,” Andoh said.

The global supply chain crisis is compounding the ability to fix buses with mechanical issues due to the difficulty of getting parts in a timely manner. Some parts have been on back order for six months. That’s led to the need for more Roberts buses to be on the road.

“Parts availability has been a struggle, and complex challenges in repairing components on old vehicles causes the bus to be in the shop longer than anticipated,” Andoh said.

The supply chain crisis also has affected the delivery of new buses, forcing the County to procure more old buses and update bus replacement plans. Councilman Tim Richards asked during the Public Works and Mass Transit Committee meeting if the old buses would last long enough until new vehicles arrive.

Andoh said that’s a valid concern.

Hele-On is working with its maintenance team and contractor to tackle the supply chain issues by buying parts in advance. It also is working to standardize the fleet, which would help alleviate some of the strain on the system by having similar parts for multiple buses available to fix the older buses when they fail.

Andoh said that should buy some time for the county to transition to a new fleet.

Moving forward, Hele-On will continue working with Roberts Hawai’i to make sure buses are available per its contract with the County when they are needed. It also will use more creative means to procure new buses and increase the capacity of maintenance staff at the County and Roberts.

Despite the recent issues and setbacks, Mass Transit is continuing to implement other parts of the multi-modal transportation master plan, including a new vanpool service and plans for a Pāhoa Transit Hub. Hele-On also has seen a significant increase in passenger trips this year thanks in part to free bus fares. The free rides began in March and will continue through 2025. The program costs the Mass Transit Agency about $560,000 a year, which is being covered by federal grant funds.

A graph shows how passenger trips on the Hele-On transit system have taken a turn upward since fiscal year 2021. Graph courtesy of Hawai‘i County.

The Hele-On transit system, which includes buses, paratransit services, demand response, taxi rideshares and vanpool, collectively saw 588,416 passenger trips from July 1, 2021, through June 30 of this year. During the same period last fiscal year, Hele-On saw 325,049 passenger trips. About 473,083 passenger trips were made on buses alone.

“This program is about opportunity,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in a press release about the free-fare program. “As we continue to strive for an island that helps our residents thrive and succeed, we must ensure that they have the ability to get where they need to be when they need to be there — at little to no cost.

“The way we see it, transportation is a bridge that connects people to workplaces, recreation, their families and so much more. That’s why it’s a priority, and that’s why we’re proud to offer that service for free.”

In addition, HIBIKE, the bike-share system operating islandwide, saw 23,466 bicycle trips during the last fiscal year.

Federal grants also are being used to implement the new transit service network on the Big Island, which has increased access to public transportation in Hilo, Kona, Waimea, Puna and Kaʻū with later service, more frequent service and Sunday and holiday services. The County also has expanded access to underserved communities such as Pahoa.

“Continued higher ridership translates into increased federal and state formula funding and creates a positive feedback loop for Hele-On to improve and grow the island’s mobility network,” Andoh said in the press release.

For more information about Hele-On or to inquire about services, call 808-961-8744, email [email protected], visit the Hele-On website or find Hele-On on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. People also are encouraged to follow Hele-On on Twitter for up-to-date route information.

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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