Upcoming Upgrades: Transit Scaling Up Bus Upgrades

The bus riders growled and moaned, and the transport provider listened.

After receiving a litany of complaints and suggestions from passengers, Hawai’i County Mass Transit took what these people were saying to heart by ushering in a new set of standards aimed at making the driving experience not only more convenient, but also practical and pleasant.

The changes have been a long time coming.

Adopted in 2018, the county is finally moving forward with the improvements outlined in its public and multimodal transport master plan.

“The master plan sets a framework to guide the transit agency for the next 20 years,” said Acting Hawai’i County Transit Director John Andoh, who has taken control of the city. department under siege six months ago. “To make Hele-On an economic engine for the county to create community, connect people to quality of life opportunities, increase jobs, improve air quality and environment, and to help ensure the sustainability of the county, a new multi- modal public transport system is in order. The master plan helps Hele-On achieve this.

People wait for the bus at a Hele-On terminal in Hilo. (Nathan Christophel / Big Island Now)
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Hele-On is the county’s public transportation provider. Double-decker buses are ubiquitous sights around the island. But just as mundane as the sight of a large bus driving down the roads of the Big Island, complaints from the public about the inconsistent and unreliable service provided by the system.

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Namely, obsolete vehicles were often broken down, out of service and, when in motion, less than punctual. These unfortunate flaws resulted in disaster for workers who relied on the system to get around the island and get to their jobs and other necessities or events.

But after overcoming those hardships and a litany of other issues, including a lack of cohesive leadership as well as logistical challenges during the pandemic, the county is stepping on the accelerator to improve.

“The Hele-On transit system has not changed in 15 years,” said Andoh.

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In August, Andoh appeared before Hawai’i County Council to outline all of the department’s issues. The agency has struggled for years with issues ranging from the reliability of bus routes, schedules to planning, monitoring of contracts, lack of performance standards, marketing, customer service and internal leadership, among others, he said.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the agency’s woes.

The board heard loud and clear from Andoh’s internal audit.

On September 5, the county agreed to move forward with the implementation of the long-awaited public and multimodal transport master plan by many bus users.

The changes being considered include the grievances the public voiced when officials sought feedback on what would improve the transit system.

“We are constantly receiving feedback from passengers and drivers on how to improve service,” said Andoh.

“It’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be brilliant”

Delayed or not, several changes have been put in place in recent months, including the introduction of several new routes, buses running later and new services on Sundays and holidays.
As for Sunday and public holiday services, three bus lines offered such service in the old format. Now there are 12.

“As the community responds and a request is made for additional service on Sunday / holiday, it will be added to those respected routes,” said Andoh.

The Hele-On system will also provide additional evening services, especially in high demand areas like Pāhoa and Kailua-Kona, and for people who require transportation between Hilo and Kona.

While the master plan outlines a detailed plan for improvement, Andoh said that, for the most part, it was the riders’ feedback that made the difference. These comments resulted in revisions to some bus schedules to improve schedules and performance and even the addition of new services.

“I want to believe that once we are able to implement all the actions of this master plan, this county will have a very robust and multimodal public transport system with a whole new fleet, with the appropriate infrastructure for support this operation, and it will make the transit system very efficient where we connect people to opportunity, ”said Andoh.

He added that the new Hele-On might even get to a point where it could compete with the automobile, adding that people might consider not driving their cars and instead taking advantage of the public system.

“It’s gonna be engaging, it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be brilliant,” Andoh said.

More work to do, but improvements are taking shape

The overall product is still not without flaws.

As for some routes, full additions have yet to be implemented due to a shortage of drivers. These routes include 102, 103 and 104, all intra-Hilo routes that go into the Kaumana, Waiakea Uka and Mohouli regions.

Once more drivers can be hired by Roberts Hawai’i, the company the county is partnering with to provide drivers for the Hele-On buses, service on those routes will last up to 7 p.m. The goal is to add them by February 2022.

Having said that, a lot has been done since September.

Perhaps some of the most significant changes have been new routes, including a Waimea shuttle; a Mohouli service in Hilo; routes to Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Paradise Park, and Fern Acres; changes to intra-Kona services; a green line between Honokaʻa and Kona Commons in Kailua-Kona; and the Blue Line, which takes passengers from Mo’oheau Bus Station on Saddle Road to the resorts of South Kohala and the West Hawai’i Civic Center in Kailua-Kona.

Technological advancements have also been made in the way Hele-On passengers can purchase fares and plan their trips.

The most recent change was the addition of hourly service on weekends starting November 14 for Route 40, the Hilo / Pahoa bus; the inclusion of a bus stop at Leilani Estates; an additional trip on Route 60, the Hilo / Waimea bus; and the removal of lunch breaks on Route 401, a new route that operates between Pāhoa to Kea’au-Pāhoa Road and Kahakai Boulevard and Hawaiian Beaches, Seaview and Kalapana with hourly connections to Route 40.

Even smaller changes are being made as Mass Transit hears from users. One example is the change to Route 102, the Kaumana Bus, which now departs from the Mo’oheau Bus Terminal in downtown Hilo 15 minutes after every hour instead of from above the hour for its ride to at Waianuenue Avenue and Kaumana Drive.

Passengers can now make purchases with a debit or credit card at the Mo’oheau Terminal in downtown Hilo. the Hele-On website now has a widget where you can plan your bus trip. Passengers can even buy bus tickets through their smartphones now by downloading the Token Transit application. Hele-On is now also present on social networks.

Another new service is Hele-On Kako’o, a paratransit service that serves people with disabilities.

Other upgrades are also coming.

New buses will be added to the fleet with a myriad of amenities including Wi-Fi, automated announcements, a low floor for disabled devices to simply ride, and even a new paint scheme, among others. And it will also be a system that can grow with an island community that continues to grow.

“The end product, we’ll start to look like transit to other states and other cities,” Andoh said. “What the island has deserved for a very long time.”

Even more improvements planned

The master plan provides for several other changes that will be implemented over the next few years.

Upcoming changes and additions to Hele-On could include:

  • Launch of a carpooling program.
  • Study the implementation of free buses for two years.
  • Replacement of the entire Hele-On fleet with new electric, hydrogen and diesel-hybrid buses.
  • Restructuring of the collective taxi program
  • Additional trips have been added on Route 90 (the Pāhala / South Kohala Route), a new route to Kailua-Kona, and a new route from Volcano to Ocean View.
  • Converted Route 60 to flexible service to allow the bus to deviate 1 mile from the route, such as the Waimea Shuttle Route and Route 403, which runs between Kea’au and Fern Acres.
  • Use of vans for Hele-On Kakoʻo.
  • Construction of transit hubs in Pāhoa, Kailua-Kona, Waimea and Hilo.
  • Additional maintenance personnel to support the maintenance efforts of a new fleet.
  • Continuous training of staff to understand the administration, operation and maintenance of public transport.
  • Increased marketing and community awareness about Hele-On and its services.
  • A new Hele-On site.
  • Free HIBIKE rides for Hele-On runners.

Formalization of additional bus stops and bus shelters added to the scale of the island. To read the master plan, click on here.

To find bus routes, plan your next bus trip or for more information, visit Hele-On website.

Melvin Z. Madore