More money for buses

  • A Hele-On bus sits at the Kona Kmart on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Help is on the way for the troubled Hele-On bus system.

The state Department of Transportation is sending another $419,817 in federal funds to the county, on top of the $700,000 already appropriated. Bill 87, set to be voted today by the County Council, will accept the money into county coffers.

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The money, a formula grant for rural areas, can be used for capital, planning and operating expenses, provided the county puts up a match of a varying percentage, depending on how the money is used.

Acting Mass Transit Administrator Tiffany Kai said the grant is among several the county has applied for.

“We will be using these funds to replace vehicles that has met its useful life,” Kai said in an email response. “These funds require a 20 percent match.”

The county also applied for a bus and bus facilities discretionary grant, Kai said. If awarded, that grant will also be used for replacement vehicles, she said.

The money could be put to a good use.

A full 25 of the 55-bus fleet were out of commission awaiting major repairs when Mayor Harry Kim took over in December. The county is still struggling to repair buses, while plugging the gaps by hiring private tour company buses and drivers for tens of thousands of dollars a week.

The council budgeted $14 million this year for transit operations and improvements, up slightly from last year. Half of the money comes from the general fund, which comes primarily from property taxes, and half comes from the highway fund, collected from gas taxes and franchise fees to utilities.

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But Mass Transit used only $75,596, or 12 percent, of the $625,596 line-item for equipment in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The remaining $550,000 was marked “lapsed,” and did not carry over to the new fiscal year.

The county has hired a new transit head. Maria Aranguiz, chief of systems planning and forecasting for the California Department of Transportation, will begin as the county Mass Transit Agency administrator on Feb. 16.