New mass transit administrator hits the ground running

Transit Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz at her new office in the Hilo baseyard on Thursday. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Maria “Sole” Aranguiz is aware the county’s bus system has hit a few bumps in the road.

She knows about the $500,000 mass transit study that takes a long-term approach to improving the system. She’s heard there is a legislative audit on cash management just about to be completed. She’s mindful the new $11.3 million Hilo baseyard is slowly coming together more than a year behind schedule.

But, from the moment Aranguiz planted her black work boots on the Big Island and took over the Mass Transit Agency about two weeks ago, she’s been focused on first things first.

“The most immediate goal here is to get those buses running,” Aranguiz said Thursday during an interview with West Hawaii Today at the new baseyard.

Aranguiz took over an agency plagued with problems. Ridership has dropped by almost a third as frequent Hele-On bus breakdowns make the buses unreliable for commuting.

Only 30 of the 55-bus fleet were reportedly operating when Mayor Harry Kim took over in December. Currently, only 18 are, forcing the county into costly daily rentals of tour company vehicles and school buses.

“We’re getting more repaired,” she said.

A dynamo packed in a petite frame, Aranguiz has hit the ground running.

Although the bulk of the new baseyard’s interior equipment — such as for the gleaming new work bays for mechanics — has yet to be installed, Aranguiz has set up her office in the facility, where buses are stored between runs. All that’s missing, she said, are route maps to drape the walls.

For Aranguiz, customer service is the key. One of her first actions was to open a small office at the county building in Hilo, where two employees address disabled riders’ concerns, answer questions and sell bus tickets and coupons. The goal is to bring the transit system to the people.

Repairing and replacing buses to make the bus system reliable, keeping them clean and communicating more clearly with the public are major goals.

“We are truly committed to being good stewards of items purchased with public funds,” she said.

Aranguiz was formerly chief of systems planning and forecasting for the California Department of Transportation before taking the Hawaii County job. She has a bachelor’s degree in geography and urban planning and graduate work in public administration from California State University at San Bernardino.

The county position pays $69,084-$127,284 annually. Aranguiz was one of five qualified applicants who applied.

“We were looking for a manager,” Kim said. “I hope we hit that home run, and I believe we did.”