Routes canceled as Hele-On bus shortage intensifies

  • A polynesian Adventures Tour bus is used for the Hele-On intra-Kona route in 2017. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The wheels on the bus aren’t going ‘round the island as frequently as before, as the county Mass Transit Agency struggles with a shortage of Hele-On buses to cover all the routes.

There aren’t even enough daily rental buses from the tour bus companies, the usual source of fill-in buses for the beleaguered agency. That’s because the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires working wheelchair lifts or ramps on public fixed-route buses, while private tour bus companies operate on different rules.

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Hawaii County was already sued for not having accessible buses. A settlement with a Hele-On bus rider who couldn’t get his motorized wheelchair onto a fixed-route bus required the county to offer options, including the Kakoo paratransit service, offering door-to-door transportation for those riders who fill out a form and qualify. That began in 2016 in Kona and Hilo.

Since last week, Mass Transit has been relying on the county Civil Defense Agency to send out daily updates, saying which routes will be canceled. Mass Transit is also updating its website with the information.

“We consult with our contract provider Polynesian Adventure Tours, Roberts Tours and Transportation and Akita’s for daily coverage of bus routes,” Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira said Monday. “Once we know what routes are covered, then I know which routes have to be canceled.”

Last week, five or six routes had to be canceled each day, and so far this week, it’s down to just two routes, Intra-Kona and Pahoa 3.

“We are very sorry for the cancellations and again we ask our residents and visitors for their patience and understanding,” Carreira said.

Carreira, the third administrator in less than a year, took over Oct. 1, 2018. 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 last year.

It’s not known how long this last-minute notification system will be in place, but Carreira hopes to have four new buses on the routes by March. She’s headed to the mainland at the end of this month to inspect the newly purchased vehicles, she said.

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At least three of the new buses will be assigned to the Pahoa routes, she said.

“This situation does call for flexibility as we continue to work on solutions,” she said.

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