Shuttle service for Maunakea VIS on hold, ‘not dead’

Although the Maunakea Visitor Information Station reopened last week after a year of COVID-related closure, a proposed shuttle service to the popular destination will not happen anytime soon.

Last November, the Maunakea Management Board heard a proposal from a pair of Big Island residents for a potential pilot program where a daily shuttle that would transport passengers from Daniel K. Inouye Highway to the Maunakea summit, with a stop at the VIS more than halfway up the mountain.

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John McBride, owner of Hawaiian Village Tours and one of the two who presented the plan, said he envisioned his tour company contracting with the University of Hawaii in order to manage the high number of tourists visiting the summit.

Under the November proposal, the shuttle would provide service only during sunset hours at first, ramping up availability over time. The proposal estimated that the service could replace 47 visitor vehicles with only four shuttle vans.

The Maunakea Management Board supported the proposal and passed it on to UH’s Office of Maunakea Stewardship for policy review. Since then, McBride has heard no updates for the project.

“We’re waiting for UH,” McBride said. “I don’t get it, they talk about how they want to do something to control crowds up there, but they’re not doing this.”

Rodrigo Romo, newly appointed manager for the VIS, said that there have been up to 300 vehicles driving up the mountain every day over the past few months, even before the station reopened.

But now, with the VIS reopened, traffic to the VIS is expected to increase, which could lead to congestion when paired with the COVID precautions imposed at the station. Romo said only 10 visitors are allowed in the VIS at a time, and expects “some waiting time to get in.”

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the shuttle proposal has been pushed to the university’s back burner for the time being.

“It’s not dead,” he said. “It’s just that other things have been prioritized at UH right now.”

Meisenzahl said the project is “destined to happen” in some form, but will be slow going, as UH will have to partner with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to make it so — and partnerships between state agencies are always slow to form.

In the meantime, travelers to the VIS must find their own rides and should expect to wait.

In order to avoid lines, visitors can sign up at the VIS front entrance so that staff can call them when they can enter, Romo said.

Other COVID guidelines at the VIS include one-way foot traffic patterns, plexiglass barriers separating visitors from the three VIS staff members, a mask requirement and the elimination of food and beverage service.

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Center for Maunakea Station Rangers also are ensuring that only clean four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed to drive past the VIS to the summit.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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