Consultant: Hele-On needs buses, personnel, money

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

HILO — A consultant’s description of the county Hele-On bus system Tuesday was certainly no surprise to regular bus riders — it needs a lot of work.

“Your transit system is in dire straits. … It is not in a good place,” said Cheryl Soon, of SSFM International. “Your buses are broken down. … You’re hanging by a thread.”


Soon unveiled to the County Council Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit the first draft of a master plan, saying the county has a long way to go.

The 10-year plan includes more buses, more routes, more personnel and a Kona maintenance baseyard.

And, of course, more money.

Council members seemed to favor the plan, but some were worried about the costs.

“I think it’s a great plan,” said Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter, of Hamakua.

Poindexter said she welcomes public input about the plan.

“How we fund it and what the people’s thoughts are,” are priorities, she said. “We know that the price tag is really big.”

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha was hesitant about using property taxes to pay for the system.

“I want to make sure my community, which is paying the most, is getting a hell of a good system,” Kanuha said.

Operating costs would go up from $9.86 million this year to $11.43 million over the next two years, then $12.1 million after that, rising to $18 million in the 10th year. Capital expenses account for another $4.3 million to $6 million. Fares bring in just $1.3 million, a figure consultants hope can double to $2.6 million by 2022.

Paratransit service would be improved in Hilo and Kona, and the shared-ride taxi voucher system, currently available only in Hilo, may possibly be expanded to Kona.

Soon said increasing the general excise tax by one-half percent would more than pay for the upgrades. She recommended the county also add two or three positions next year, including a fiscal officer and a garage supervisor.

“We recommend you not raise fares a few years until you’re back in a good place,” Soon said.

She said the system has lost about one-third of its riders over the past few years, dropping from 1.2 million riders in 2012 to about 874,000 now.

Hele-On service has actually gotten worse over the past two years, she said. A system that should have at least 50 buses has just 19 working, seven of those donated by the City and County of Honolulu.

The consultants will now go for a second round of public hearings in April for comments on the master plan, which can be found at

They’re recommending a fleet of 58 vehicles, 48 on routes and 10 backup vehicles. Having to rent buses from private vendors is adding $3.2 million annually to the budget.

“You are wasting money every day,” by not having functioning buses, Soon said.

Fern Forest resident Hannah Hedrick urged the council to act on the plan. She noted that it took six years of community pressure to get Hele-On buses to the airports, and she pushed for “accountability and action, not just planning.”

Toby Hazel, testifying from Pahoa, said buses, first and foremost, need to be in working order. And, she said the county needs to have backup plans.


Hazel described an elderly woman she encountered in Hilo lugging grocery bags. The woman was almost in tears as she walked home with her load after the bus broke down, Hazel said.

“There’s no emergency plan to pick up these people that you leave scattered around on the streets,” Hazel said.