Big Island’s Hele-On bus system plagued by aging fleet and supply chain issues : Big Island Now

ByShannon J. Cortes

Oct 14, 2022

People wait for a Hele-On bus to stop in December and another waits at the Mo’oheau bus terminal in downtown Hilo. Screenshot from Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now video

Since the beginning of August, the Twitter feed of Hele-On, Hawaii County’s public transportation bus service, has been filled with notices of cancellations and delays.

Two time slots for Highway 90 from Pāhala to South Kohala resorts were canceled on Thursday. Highway 103, the Waiākea Uka bus in Hilo, was delayed an hour at some point on Wednesday. The rest of Route 301a circulator route from Waimea, was canceled Wednesday afternoon. Itinerary 2 from the Mo’oheau bus terminal in downtown Hilo to Kona was canceled Monday afternoon.

Some of the recent cancellations and delays have been caused by traffic jams, road works, traffic accidents or other extenuating circumstances. But a cursory glance at tweets from the bus system over the past two months tells an all-too-familiar story.

Mechanical problems and bus shortages are once again causing headaches for riders and drivers. People’s frustration has often surfaced over the past two months.

Riders had to drive around the Mo’oheau bus station for hours in the late afternoon sun, waiting for a bus to Kona, including parents with children. Others waited at a bus stop for a ride that would never come, forced to call a ride-sharing service to get to work. The security guards at the terminal and other bus stops in Hilo are probably tired of being asked if and when a bus will arrive – it’s not necessarily their job to know, but they help anyway. There were even intense conversations between people waiting for a bus and Hele-On employees at the terminal.

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Some drivers have questioned why there aren’t more county-owned buses on the road, and others wonder if changes to the Hele-On system are being made too quickly.

It all harkens back to a time not so long ago when instability in the county’s transit agency and problems with buses were commonplace for a public transportation system that, to put it mildly, was mediocre.

John Andoh, administrator of Mass Transit and managing director of Hele-On, admits there are problems at the moment, but says they have not gotten out of hand.

He said they were part of the growing pains of a bus system that has grown since the county passed its transit and multimodal master plan in 2018 and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. .

“This is normal during a pandemic as well as when various elements need to line up to fit together well,” Andoh told Big Island Now in an email. “Any system change will experience difficulties before it smooths out.”

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The main culprit for the recent mechanical problems has been a constant problem for several years, even before the implementation of the master plan. This is the age of the county’s bus fleet. The average age of buses in the fleet is 18 years old. Some buses have 1 million or more miles on their odometers.

There are plans to replace the aging fleet, but it won’t happen overnight. Andoh reported at a Sept. 7 meeting of the Hawai’i County Council Public Works and Transit Committee that the fleet will hopefully be completely replaced by 2025.

“It will take two years for the full new fleet to be delivered and available,” he told Big Island Now in an email.

Andoh said the county is soliciting bids and proposals for a total of 35 new buses that would effectively replace the county’s fleet. But the first new vehicles – four commuter buses, eight transit buses and three hydrogen coupe buses – aren’t expected to arrive until next year, at the earliest.

This means that Hele-On will continue to have to contend for the foreseeable future with an older, donated fleet that breaks down and fails, causing the majority of delays and cancellations since August. Bus route cancellations and some delays are directly related to vehicle availability.

Hawai’i County Transit Agency Administrator and Hele-On General Manager John Andoh speaks September 7 during a meeting of the council’s Public Works and Transit Committee of county. (Screenshot from the video)
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Hele-On’s current fleet consists of 39 county-owned buses and 31 buses from Roberts Hawai’i, which is contracted to provide buses when the county cannot. Nine county buses and 29 Roberts-owned buses were in service at the end of September.

Andoh said Hele-On has started prioritizing routes when there is a shortage of vehicles, with the worst-performing routes sometimes being suspended until a bus becomes available. A process is also being developed with Roberts to operationally ensure how vehicles can be assigned to different pick-ups and that hours of service remain unchanged.

“We continue to work to get more buses owned by (Mass Transit Agency) back into service,” Andoh said.

The global supply chain crisis is worsening the ability to repair buses with mechanical problems due to the difficulty of obtaining parts in a timely manner. Some parts have been out of stock for six months. This led to the need for more Roberts buses on the road.

“Parts availability has been a struggle, and the complex challenges of repairing components on older vehicles means the bus sits in the shop longer than expected,” Andoh said.

The supply chain crisis has also affected the delivery of new buses, forcing the county to procure more old buses and update bus replacement plans. Councilor Tim Richards asked at the Public Works and Transit Committee meeting if the old buses would last long enough until new vehicles arrived.

Andoh said it was a valid concern.

Hele-On works with its maintenance team and contractor to resolve supply chain issues by purchasing parts in advance. It is also working to standardize the fleet, which would help ease some of the strain on the system by having similar parts for multiple buses available to repair older buses in the event of a breakdown.

Andoh said that should give the county time to transition to a new fleet.

Going forward, Hele-On will continue to work with Roberts Hawai’i to ensure buses are available under its county contract when needed. It will also use more creative ways to buy new buses and increase the capacity of county and Roberts maintenance staff.

Despite recent problems and setbacks, Mass Transit continues to implement other parts of the multimodal transportation master plan, including a new ride-sharing service and plans for a Pāhoa Transit Hub. Hele-On has also seen a significant increase in passenger travel this year thanks in part to free bus fares. The free rides began in March and will run through 2025. The program costs the Mass Transit Agency about $560,000 a year, which is covered by federal grants.

A graph shows how passenger travel on the Hele-On transit system has increased since fiscal year 2021. Graph courtesy of Hawai’i County.

The Hele-On transit system, which includes buses, paratransit services, demand response, ride-hailing and carpooling, collectively recorded 588,416 passenger trips from July 1, 2021 through June 30. of this year. During the same period of the previous fiscal year, Hele-On recorded 325,049 passenger trips. Approximately 473,083 passenger trips were made by bus alone.

“This program is an opportunity,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in a press release about the free program. “As we continue to strive for an island that helps our residents thrive and succeed, we must ensure they have the ability to get where they need to be when they need to be there – at little or no cost. .

“We believe transportation is a bridge that connects people to places of work, play, their families and more. That’s why it’s a priority, and that’s why we’re proud to offer this service for free.

Additionally, HIBIKE, the island-wide bike share system, recorded 23,466 bike rides in the last fiscal year.

Federal grants are also used to implement the new Big Island Transit Service Network, which has improved access to public transit in Hilo, Kona, Waimea, Puna, and Kaʻū with later service, more frequent service and services on Sundays and holidays. The county has also expanded access to underserved communities such as Pahoa.

“The continued increase in ridership translates into increased federal and state formula funding and creates a positive feedback loop for Hele-On to improve and grow the island’s mobility network,” said Andoh said in the press release.

For more information about Hele-On or to inquire about services, call 808-961-8744, email [email protected], visit the Hele-On website or find Hele-On on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. People are also encouraged to follow Hele-On on Twitter for up-to-date route information.