The over-budget Honolulu rail project may never end up reaching the Ala Moana Center, but the city is still moving forward with a bus system that was originally envisioned to take rail riders from the mall into the tourist mecca of Waikiki.

The plan was conceived about a decade ago after Waikiki residents and businesses said they were opposed to having rail in their neighborhood.

The service is called the Waikiki Circulator. The idea is to use electric buses that would run frequently to accommodate what was expected to be an increase in demand because of rail.

The city’s acting transportation director, Mark Garrity, said consultants hired by the city have been working since April to identify circulator stops, determine what each stop will include, talk to local businesses and people, and figure out how the service would work. The consultants are scheduled to produce a draft report by the end of the year, he said.

Route 2 transports passengers from Kalihi to Kapiolani Community College.
One of the current bus routes in Waikiki takes passengers from Kalihi to Kapiolani Community College and stops every two or three blocks. The circulator buses would be designed to stop less frequently. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The original plan for rail included a 20-mile, 21-station route from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. But the project has gone over-budget and is facing a $1.8 billion shortfall, forcing the city and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to look for more money or else consider other options, including ending the line before it gets to the mall.

State Rep. Tom Brower, whose district includes Waikiki, Ala Moana and a small portion of Kakaako, said people have had mixed feelings about rail going to the mall. But if it does make it there, he said, it’s important to have a way to get to the city’s primary tourist destination.

“Should rail be built and come to Ala Moana Center, a lot of people now realize, ‘How are people getting to Waikiki?’” he said.

Fewer Stops, Greater Service

The circulator will feature two routes – one to cover the core Waikiki area along Kalakaua and Kuhio Avenues, and another to cover the Ala Moana Boulevard, Kalia Road and Lewers Street area – where buses will travel in a loop along each route.

“The question is, ‘How can you best, most efficiently service the maximum number of riders with a high capacity circulator system?’” said Eric Masutomi, chairman of the Waikiki Transportation Stakeholder Oversight Committee, a group that works with the city to solve the neighborhood’s transportation problems.

The consultants will also be working on what kind of access the buses would provide to major destinations, how many people will potentially use them, what traffic is like and how existing lanes are laid out, according to Garrity.

Separate from other local bus stops, the circulator will have fewer stops than existing bus lines in the area, though the exact number is still being determined. Route 8, which currently connects Waikiki to Ala Moana, has a bus stop for westward travel every two or three blocks on Kuhio Avenue.

“In the whole scheme of things, frankly we’ve gotten used to more stops than are probably necessary,” said Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association and an oversight committee member. “I mean given right now you figure that most people don’t have to walk more than two blocks, and if you had to walk three or four, it wouldn’t really be a big problem.”

An Aug. 31 presentation given to the oversight committee showed that part of the main circulator route along Kalakaua and Kuhio avenues could have nine stops versus the current 26 regular bus stops.

The goal is to serve each stop every few minutes, minimizing wait time, but Garrity said the exact time of travel between buses on the route has not been determined.

Sam Filipo, a cook at Queen Kapiolani Hotel, awaits his evening bus to go home to Waianae.
Sam Filipo, a cook at Queen Kapiolani Hotel, awaits his evening bus at a stop along Kuhio Avenue to go home to Waianae. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The circulator also would aim to cut down the amount of time it takes for a person to board the bus, which is one of the major causes of delay with the existing system. To improve boarding times, passengers would be able to board from all doors and pay fares with electronic cards before boarding. Stops would also feature informative signs to reduce the need for riders to ask drivers questions.

Like the rail project, the completion of the circulator depends on a number of factors, including funding. The city plans to use a combination of federal and local funds, Garrity said. The circulator could be in operation by 2019, and other routes serving Waikiki will be examined and could be adjusted over time, he said.

Preparing For The Rail

Masutomi said one challenge for the new service would be how it fits into the current bus system. Waikiki is already a major transfer point and destination for bus routes.

“Trying to modify that or displace that within the context of an ongoing using system requires massive changes in bus routes,” he said. “So the real challenge is how do you integrate or overlay something like this onto an existing system that at some point also has to service HART.”

“A lot of people now realize, ‘How are people getting to Waikiki?’” — State Rep. Tom Brower

Since 2013, the plan has been that the circulator would replace Route 8.

Paola Rodelas, a spokesperson for the union Unite Here Local 5, said there are about 15,000 hotel workers in Waikiki, and the union represents about 6,500 of those workers.

While she said she didn’t know exactly how many of the union’s members commute to and from work on the bus, she said a significant number of them do.

“Many of our members live in Kalihi, Waipahu and Ewa Beach,” she said. “The members who live on the Leeward side mostly take the express routes like the Ws and the E. It’s the folks who live in Kalihi who are more likely to take Route 8.”

She added that the union’s concern with any bus route would be to ensure that there are stops near the hotels where its members work. Some member hotels include the Ilikai Hotel and Luxury Suites, Hale Koa Hotel, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel and Resort, the Royal Hawaiian Resort Waikiki and the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort and Spa.

Waikiki, Kuhio, bus
Route 8 has bus stops on Kuhio Avenue about every two blocks. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

“This will get all of our workers in the hotel system that live in West Oahu or Downtown a very quick ride to work, a very quick way to get home. Right now, 4:30 in the afternoon, I was standing in Fort DeRussy watching all the hotel workers jamming up the buses for about an hour and a half ride home,” said Bob Finley, Waikiki Neighborhood Board chairman and an oversight committee member.

Board vice chairman Louis Erteschik said he thinks the circulator is a good idea and that he’s seen cities where the circulator buses cover routes that aren’t normally included.

Egged said the circulator will add to an already good bus system.

“I think the whole idea of trying to come up with ways to make the bus system more efficient and … moving the transactions off the bus is a good one,” he said.

Masutomi’s hope is that the project will go through with or without rail.

“My point is, with or without HART, this is an important transportation solution for Waikiki residents and employees and businesses,” he said. “It’s just a must-have.”

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