HILO — Years of neglect led to Hawaii County spending $618,000 to rent last-minute daily substitute buses in December alone, but the Mass Transit Agency is working hard to stop the bleeding, Administrator Brenda Carreira told the County Council this week.
The cost of renting buses by the day to cover shortages and bus breakdowns dropped to $431,000 in January, she said.
Not only are the substitutions expensive, many are lacking two features most popular with riders — wheelchair ramps and bike racks.
A convoy of five wheelchair riders powered into Hilo council chambers last week to bring that first point home.
“It’s sad. … The buses work but all the ramps don’t work,” wheelchair user Danny Johnson told the Council Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit. “It’s hard when you sit down at Mooheau Park on the sidewalk and everybody’s getting in the bus and you got to wait on the side and you just wait and there goes one bus. Next bus leaves, you can’t get in that bus, so you’re just left behind until they accommodate us with paratransit. … I’m hoping the director and whoever else is in charge of planning, they plan to get more buses.”
The Hele-On Kakoo paratransit service, offering door-to-door transportation for those riders who fill out a form and qualify, started in 2016 in Kona and Hilo. The county was required to institute a system as part of a settlement of a lawsuit by a Hele-On bus rider who couldn’t get his motorized wheelchair onto a fixed-route bus.
But the service, in addition to costing $4 each way compared to the $1 each way Hele-On charges disabled riders, is available by appointment and isn’t always available in a reasonable time, riders said.
Carreira said operable wheelchair lifts and bike racks are now part of bus contracts. In addition, she said, the county purchased bike racks and is installing them on eight buses owned by Polynesian Adventure Tours, one of the daily bus contractors.
Carreira, the third administrator in less than a year, took over Oct. 1. She inherited an agency plagued by inconsistent bus schedules, broken buses, a drop in ridership, an audit that blasted sloppy cash-handling practices and low employee morale.
Despite the availability of federal grants that would have provided buses while costing the county nothing, there were no grant applications or purchases since 2014, she said.
“We are behind by 16 buses that we could have gotten,” Carreira said.
There were only 14 working county buses for 33 routes when she took over, Carreira said. Now there are between 17 and 21 on any given day.
The county has put out a request for proposals for two vans and four mini-buses, which are smaller buses of 25 seats or more. Those should be in the fleet by the end of this year or the first quarter of 2020, she said.
In the meantime, the new driver contract, which is renewed periodically, includes buses for West Hawaii as well. The private buses will serve Kona, North Kohala and Ka‘u, while the county buses will continue running the South Kohala resort routes and cover East Hawaii, where the mechanics are.
That should save time and money, because broken county buses must be towed to Hilo at more than $1,000, or a mechanic has to go to West Hawaii to fix the bus, leaving riders stranded for hours, Carreira said. The request for proposals went out in December, and she hopes the price will come down compared to the daily, last-minute rate. The new contract should go into effect April 1.
“We don’t have 33 buses or 50 buses and we’ve been renting them anyway,” she said. “I just want to make it easier serving the public, making it reliable, on time.”
Council members praised the agency’s progress.
“This has been the most refreshing update we have gotten from Mass Transit in the last 24 to 28 months,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. “I’m sure all of my colleagues are feeling it right now.”