Council committee advances fare-free bus

  • Passengers board the Hele On Kona Trolley Tuesday on Luhia Street. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • John Andoh

  • Passengers board a Hele-On bus Tuesday on Luhia Street. On Tuesday, Hawaii County Council members voted 8-0 to advance Bill 105, eliminating bus fares, to the first of two required council readings. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Passengers board a Hele-On bus to Hilo Tuesday on Luhia Street. On Tuesday, Hawaii County Council members voted 8-0 to advance Bill 105, eliminating bus fares, to the first of two required council readings. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

After being named Monday the fourth Mass Transit administrator in as many years, John Andoh on Tuesday won a County Council endorsement of his first bill, a measure creating a fare-free Hele-On bus system for the next two years, if not longer.

Andoh, an experienced transit veteran who once worked at the agency, had been serving as interim administrator since July, when he stepped in for former Administrator Brenda Carreira, who was on extended personal leave.


On Tuesday, council members once again showered Andoh with praise, while voting 8-0 to advance Bill 105, eliminating bus fares, to the first of two required council readings.

“What a way to kick things off in your official position as Mass Transit administrator,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball.

It’s not the first time the county bus system went fare-free. Former Mayor Harry Kim made the bus free in 2005, a practice that continued for more than five years.

It’s unclear when the new fare-free system would go into effect, once the bill passes the council and is approved by the mayor. Andoh said he wants to allow a little time for those who bought passes or bus coupons to use them up. Because of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, once the fixed-route bus system does fare-free, so must the more costly paratransit system.

Andoh’s plan is to keep the system fare-free as long as possible while the system rebuilds from drastic rider reductions caused by not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also by, as he called it, “past unreliability of our operations.” The more rider miles the system logs, the more grant money becomes available, he said. That will reduce the system’s reliance on general excise taxes.

“We are starting to see people return to the transit system,” Andoh said. “This will help us rebuild ridership (and) give the mass Transit Agency a chance to reset itself when it comes to cash collection.”

In a 2018 audit, the county auditor said cash accounting was so lax, auditors couldn’t tell if any money is missing, much less how much. A surprise cash count that year found almost $30,000 in bus fare revenue, some of which had been there since July. Money was found in an unlocked safe and on a table in an unlocked break room.

Andoh said a new electronic cash tracking program, along with a move toward smart cards and aps and away from paper tickets, will make accounting more foolproof.

Besides, Andoh said, he sees public transit as a “social justice issue just like going to the library and other public services that are free.”

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz agreed.

“This is such a radical step forward to increasing transportation equity for our residents,” she said.

West Hawaii council members praised the new east-west express route that travels Saddle Road and hits Kona Commons before heading to resorts on the Kohala coast and Waikoloa.

“It’s an economic driver for our county,” Richards said, adding that riders actually pick up just a small fraction of the cost. “The fact that we’re suspending the fares is not a huge budget impact for us.”

Kailua-Kona resident Janice Palma-Glennie, agreed public transportation is important, but she said to truly be effective, routes need to be expanded beyond serving the West Hawaii resorts.

“While alternate public transportation is a critical part of smarter growth, it often appears that our public bus service might be more of a taxpayer-funded transportation service for big business when observed in South Kohala where workers from East Hawaii fill the public bus,” Palma-Glennie said in testimony. “If they’re not already, resorts and other big service businesses that rely on bussing workers to West Hawaii should either pay for their own bus service or contribute more to the public one.”

The first two years without fares would be possible thanks to $4.5 million in grants from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, a federal program disbursing funds to support the transit industry. Andoh said the Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency typically collects about $560,000 per year in passenger fares.

The grant funding, therefore, would more than cover the shortfall as well as operations costs over the next two years. Meanwhile, he said a $1.8 million grant to cover 2024 is pending.

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