The first new buses in five years and a new contractor had the Hele-On bus system on track for a better year. Until COVID-19 hit.
Now the four new 25-passenger buses are pretty much sidelined as social distancing rules allow for only seven passengers at a time. Instead of the Puna routes originally anticipated, one of the buses is being used on a Hilo route.
Kohala routes were cut when hotel workers lost their jobs and others because children no longer attended to school. But it’s all gradually coming back, Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira said Friday.
“We’re kind of running as normal; we’ve only shut down parts of a route if there was zero ridership,” Carreira said.
She said the hotels are slowly calling workers back in preparation for future re-openings.
Robert’s Tours and Transportation Inc. won the county contract after a competitive bidding process and a bid protest. The system was formerly run by Polynesian Adventure Tours.
The big green buses have been spotted around the island, emblazoned with the Hele-On logo in addition to Roberts’ trademark rabbit and floral logos. Although those buses belong to Roberts and not the county, the company decided to put the county logo on them after some Volcano residents complained that tour buses were rolling up the mountain, Carreira said.
The buses can carry 57 passengers but social distancing requirements allow only 17. Passengers 5 years old and older must wear masks.
The terms of the agreement include an initial three years with two one-year options to renew upon agreement by both parties. Rates for services is based on hourly rates for drivers and buses submitted by Robert’s Tours and Transportation, Inc. and will be billed to the County based on actual usage, said county Purchasing Agent Diane Nakagawa.
The county’s own buses are a variety of colors from yellow to white and blue to white and green, depending how they were acquired.
Mayor Harry Kim attended a blessing ceremony May 1 for the four new buses, according to his Facebook page. The four 29-foot El Dorado vehicles seat 25 passengers and are equipped with 2 wheelchair positions and a wheelchair lift.
The Mass Transit Agency’s requested $18.9 million budget to be funded by the general excise tax for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $5.1 million for West Hawaii, Kohala, Ka‘u bus rentals and $212,185 to supplement the agency’s own fleet in East Hawaii, according to budget documents. Bus driver contracts account for $2 million, with an additional federal match.