HILO — Hawaii County’s beleaguered bus system is getting a little boost from the federal government, thanks to a $576,000 grant announced Wednesday.
“This investment in public transportation will improve people’s commutes, reduce traffic and costs to road maintenance, and help shrink our carbon footprint,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement announcing the grant.
Schatz, D-Hawaii, sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the money is an award from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The money will be used to buy six small disabled-accessible buses, Mayor Harry Kim said. He said the award came from a competitive grant application, and both he and Mass Transit Administrator Maria “Solo” Aranguiz are thrilled to get it.
“Naturally, we are very, very happy to get this grant,” Kim said.
The 15- to 26-seat buses will be used for regular routes, supplementing larger buses that run the long hauls. The county will pay 20 percent of the cost of each bus, while the federal grant pays 80 percent.
The buses are estimated at $120,000 to $140,000 each.
Earlier this year, the county was told it’s receiving $419,817 in federal funds through the state Department of Transportation, on top of a previous grant of $700,000. That 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.
The county, however, still needs more buses, Kim said. He had said in his budget message last month the county needed 14 more buses.
Aranguiz, formerly chief of systems planning and forecasting for the California Department of Transportation, in April took over an agency plagued with problems. Ridership had dropped by almost a third as frequent Hele-On bus breakdowns made the buses unreliable for commuting.
Only 30 of the 55-bus fleet were reportedly operating when Kim took over in December 2016. Currently, only 18 are, forcing the county into costly daily rentals of tour company vehicles and school buses. As of this week, routes were still being canceled for lack of buses.
The City and County of Honolulu donated seven buses retired from its fleet last summer. Not all of those buses are operable.
Kim’s budget asks for $6.5 million in general funds and $9.2 million from the highway fund for Mass Transit for the budget year that starts July 1. That’s a 12.1 percent increase over this year’s budget.
Most riders pay a fare of $1 or $2 each way, but the amount isn’t nearly enough to cover the program. An estimated 750,000 people ride the Hele-On system annually, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $16.01 each.
“These funds come at a very critical time for us, as we are trying to improve our level of service to the people who rely on our Mass Transit system,” Kim said in a statement. “We are really grateful to the senator for seeing the need and securing the funds to help achieve this.”