With gas prices topping $5 a gallon on the Big Island, Mayor Mitch Roth used part of his State of the County speech on Thursday to highlight mass transit projects his administration is undertaking.

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Strengthening public transport means Big Island communities can connect “not just farm to table, but from farm to farm, town to town, and home to home,” Roth said.

 

The mayor touted his efforts to beef up the Hele-On public bus system, to partner with taxi and ride-share companies Uber and Lyft to offer subsidized rides, and to expand a commuter van program, among other things.

As far as upgrading the bus system, the county scored a $20 million federal grant to purchase 55 new buses by 2024, enabling it to replace its existing fleet of 33, said Cyrus Johnasen, Roth’s spokesman, in an interview before the speech. A mix of battery electric, hydrogen and diesel-electric hybrid technology will power the new buses, reducing emissions and the island’s carbon footprint.

For the next two years, Hele-On buses will be free thanks to a $4.5 million Covid-relief grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

A fare-free transit system and expanded service should increase bus use while putting money back in the pockets of riders, said Kathleen Rooney, director of transportation policy and programs for Ulupono Initiative.

“Alexandria, Virginia, saw a 25% increase in ridership as a result of a similar approach, and we know from our 2020 report, “The Costs of the Vehicle Economy in Hawaii,” that Hawaii households can save $8,000 per year if they are no longer forced into car-ownership because other transportation options are accessible and affordable,” Rooney said.

Riders at the Hilo terminal board one of the Big Island’s public buses. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2019

Roth said his administration has created new bus routes on the island, both fixed and flexible ones. The flex routes are offered in Fern Acres, the Hamakua Coast and Waimea, allowing passengers to get dropped off up to a mile off the regular bus route. The goal is to make it easier for people to get to jobs and schools.

With a severe shortage of school bus drivers on the Big Island, more children are taking public buses to school, another reason the county is concentrating on expanding the free service, said John Andoh, mass transit administrator for Hawaii County.

New express bus services have been added on the island as well as more service to Hilo, Waimea and Kailua-Kona airports.

Subsidized transit beyond buses is also in the works.

“We know that free rides aren’t helpful if access to the routes is unreasonable,” the mayor said.

To make it easier for people who don’t live near a bus route, the county is negotiating with cab and ride-share companies to make passenger trips partially subsidized six days a week.

Once a deal is finalized, the county will pay the first $12 of a fare for a passenger taking a cab, Uber or Lyft in an area where bus service is unavailable. The customer would be responsible for anything above $12. The island-wide service is expected to start by summer and is intended to complement the bus system, said Andoh.

“It’s another way of bringing public transit to those who don’t have direct access to a bus route,” he said.

Other transit investments Roth mentioned include a new shared van program for people who want to commute with others. The county will pay a $500 monthly subsidy to each van.

The county has also partnered with Kona Trolley to expand service to residents and visitors in Kailua-Kona. The service operates seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth delivered his State of the County speech on Thursday. Submitted

Jess Thompson, a public and alternative transportation advocate, said there’s much to be celebrated in what the Roth administration has accomplished so far. But a lot more work needs to be done to improve the county’s transportation system, particularly roads currently designed for cars, said Thompson, executive director of PATH, or People for Active Transportation Hawaii, a nonprofit based in Kailua-Kona.

Many Big Island roads are not pedestrian or bicycle friendly which discourages people from trying to get to bus stops or from using other non-motorized means of getting around, she said.

“The decisions about how to design roads are happening largely behind closed doors. The projects the county turns out continue not to meet the needs of people bicycling, walking, or using micro mobility devices to get around,” she said.

Given the soaring price of gas combined with growing threats from climate change, the administration needs to act with urgency to provide more alternative transport options so that people can leave their cars behind, in her view.

“If we have any option of meeting our climate goals, we have to act like our house is on fire. We have to act as if this is an emergency and make it easy for people to make good choices,” Thompson said.

Besides transportation, Roth touched on a variety of other topics in his speech, including housing. Since he took office in December 2020, the mayor said he’s dramatically expanded affordable housing.

Some 1,243 affordable housing units were in the pipeline back then, meaning they were somewhere between concept, planning or construction, Roth said. More than 5,500 such units are coming online now, he said.

But that requires building permits, something that’s been bogged down for a long time. Roth said his staff has been “aggressively tackling” an inefficient system for issuing permits that he inherited. In 2020, before he took office, the average monthly number of building permits issued was 270. Now it’s up to an average of 529 permits a month. The system was strained as it moved from a paper-based system to an electronic one.

“The transformation was painful,” Roth said.

Roth touched on how his administration has offered help to nearly 500 residents in Puna who lost their homes during the 2018 Kilauea eruption. Last year the administration launched a housing buyout program with $107 million in federal funds.

Buy-backs of up to $230,000 are being offered on primary residences, depending on the value of the home, according to the mayor’s spokesman. The county has made 120 offers so far and expects to close out the program by the end of the year, Roth said.

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