HILO — Brenda Carreira, the third Mass Transit administrator this year, assured a County Council panel earlier this week she’s taken the first steps to pull the beleaguered agency back together.
Facing inconsistent bus schedules, broken buses, a drop in ridership, an audit that blasted sloppy cash-handling practices and low employee morale, Carreira told the council she’s hit the ground running. She started Nov. 1.
“I know this is a tough job. … I understand it’s been a very frustrating time for a lot of people,” she said. “The most important thing to me was getting to know my staff and becoming a team.”
Carreira replaced Maria “Sole” Aranguiz, who resigned after eight months on the job. Carreira, who earlier in her career was an attorney working in the Office of the County Prosecutor, went to work in 2005 for Polynesian Adventure Tours and ended operations manager for Roberts Hawaii.
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy had asked Mass Transit for an update of its progress in complying with the cash-handling audit.
The surprise cash audit, conducted in January, found $30,000 in bus cash receipts, some from the previous July, piled on a break-room table and stuffed into an unlocked safe. The audit listed 30 recommendations.
Not all of the recommendations have been completed, but Carreira has closed the ticket office in the Hilo county building and moved that staff to the agency’s baseyard to tackle some of the issues. Video cameras were installed in areas where cash is kept and numbered bus tickets and receipts are in the works. An accounting clerk was hired to keep track of the cash.
The council Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit gave Carreira a break on reporting Monday about the bus audit since she’s new. But Carreira said restoring public trust is high on her priority list.
“I know we need to get the trust back from the people,” she said. “The ridership, it went down. I know it went down,” she said, explaining that she talked with passengers while training Hele-On bus drivers as part of her job at Roberts.
“‘Well, we don’t know if the bus is gonna show up, A, and B, we don’t know if they show up who would show up,’” Carreira said riders said. “So they just didn’t come,” Carreira added.
Currently, only 13 county buses are running in a system with 29 routes. The rest are being handled with day rentals of private-sector buses, school buses and county vans. The county buses themselves sport a variety of colors and designs, depending which other county donated them.
The result is a mishmash of vehicles pulling up to bus stops, leading Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter, of Hamakua, to ask how parents can be sure the bus at the stop is an actual county Hele-On bus.
Reliability remains an issue, according to Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who said he’s talked with Kohala Coast hotel management and they can cut only so much slack to employees who are late because the bus is late.
“A lot of people working at the hotels want to ride the bus,” Richards said. “They have trouble either because it doesn’t show up at the right time or shows up late whatever the case may be.”
One bus that won’t be showing up for stops is the ill-fated double-decker bus, a $900,000 vehicle that has seen little use since it was bought in 2009. Used for the Hilo-to-Kohala run primarily to ferry workers to and from the West Hawaii resorts, the bus has broken down again.
“We had great intentions on the double-decker, but it’s broken down and we’re taking it out of service. And the riders are very happy right now,” Carreira said.
The county also has another disabled double-decker recently donated by Maui. But it’s unlikely Mass Transit will accept more hand-me-downs.
“We need to establish our own fleet that is consistent and the type of vehicle that we need for the routes we are going to run,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara.