Hele-On routes expanding with new grant

  • Passengers exit the Hele-On bus from Hilo at the Kona Kmart in February. (Laura Ruminski, file/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Hilo-Kona bus routes will be expanded, as well as routes in Hawaiian Paradise Park and elsewhere in Puna, thanks to a larger-than-anticipated federal grant.

The state Department of Transportation is sending another $419,817 in federal funds to the county, on top of a previous grant of $700,000. Bill 87, approved Thursday by the County Council, accepts the money into county coffers.

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A new “blue-line express” bus will run a Kona-Hilo route once a day, traveling on Saddle Road, at a cost of about $200,000 annually. There will also be a 4:30 a.m. bus from Hilo to the Waikoloa resorts across Saddle Road, under the plan.

Currently, Hele-On buses to the resorts and Kona from Hilo travel along the northern route, making numerous stops at the little towns that dot Hamakua and North Kohala. The bus to the resorts is often overcrowded, riders say, forcing them to stand for more than an hour.

The Hawaiian Paradise Park bus will go deeper into HPP under the plan, continuing all the way down to 1st Avenue, where currently it goes only as far as 16th Avenue. The expanded route, coupled with improved service to Kurtistown and Keaau, will cost about $186,000 annually.

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.

But the council wanted to know what the beleaguered Mass Transit Agency planned to use the money for, before approving it. Council members last month bristled at a lack of answers to their questions, and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards voted against the grant, calling it a “very fuzzy plan.”

Council members said at the time that they were happy to get extra money, but they weren’t comfortable simply trusting the county agency with spending the money appropriately. The agency, which has had numerous problems with keeping enough buses on the road, is currently in the midst of an audit of its cash-handling systems.

“I’m not really hearing that we have a sound and reasonable plan,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara.

More details emerged Thursday about how the money will be used and the council unanimously approved the grant, with Richards and Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung absent.

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“I want to make sure we don’t lose this opportunity,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff.

Deputy Corporation Counsel J Yoshimoto, who presented the plan in the absence of Acting Mass Transit Administrator Tiffany Kai, said it will be several months before the new routes come into play. The county must first execute a memorandum of agreement with the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration, he said.