City transportation officials say the goal is “one integrated system.” But the changes have made commutes more difficult in some cases.

Gliding above Kamehameha Highway on Honolulu’s new Skyline rail, Jennifer Pang passes over Pali Moma Street.

“That’s the bus I used to catch,” Pang, 52, says, pointing to the Route A bus stopped below. 

She used to be able to take the Route A bus straight from Waipahu to her office in Aiea, but with the launch of the Skyline on June 30, the Route A bus no longer runs from her neighborhood. 

Skyline train rail commuter TheBus bus commuters Halawa Aloha Stadium Station transportation
Some transit users have struggled to integrate the Skyline rail system and new TheBus routes into their daily commutes. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Instead, to get to work, Pang takes the Skyline rail past her old bus stop all the way to Aloha Stadium, where she then catches the Route A bus back the way she came to her office. She has arthritis and so needs to minimize the amount she walks.

“It sucks,” Pang says.

‘One Integrated System’

Ushering in a new era of transportation, Skyline began its first phase of operations last month with great fanfare after years of delays and cost overruns. But it has still been slow going, with service running on just under 11 miles of the roughly 19-mile project, from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, while key locations like the airport and Chinatown wait for the next phase. The rail is also currently only running until 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Transportation Services introduced several bus route changes in tandem with the opening, including six modifications and 12 new routes throughout neighborhoods including Kalihi, Pearl City and Waipahu.

The most significant change affected Route A, which previously served an average of roughly 5,000 daily riders. That line now ends at Pearlridge instead of Waipahu, and bypasses the Kalihi Transit Center and North King Street to run along the rail.

The goal with the changes is to let “Skyline kind of take over the segments that Route A used to represent before,” said Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the Department of Transportation Services.

But for residents like Pang the changes have altered daily routines for the sake of a rail line that, as Pang points out, “is empty.”

The truncated rail line has meant limited utility and thus, ridership. In the most recent week of full data, the Skyline saw its lowest ridership totals to date, excluding promotional days. Huge crowds of Honolulu residents rode the rail at no cost in its opening days.

Part of the issue may be that riders are opting for other bus routes instead of taking the Skyline, then transferring to another bus at Aloha Stadium. Alternative routes suggested by DTS showed upticks in ridership in the week following the changes, although several of those route’s ridership numbers have returned to June levels since then.

Elizabeth Joven, who also had her Route A stop in Waipahu removed, has forgone rail for the Route E bus which drops her downtown, then she backtracks on the 51 bus to get to work in town.

“T​​he rail leaders need to try to get as many people on the rail as they can because the numbers are really low right now,” said Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute, a fiscally conservative policy group. 

“I think the rail leaders are trying to justify the cost of the rail and the cost of operating it right now,” Kent said. 

But chair of the City Council’s transportation committee Tyler Dos Santos-Tam urged people to think about bus and rail as “one integrated system.”

Increase On Route 74

In response to concerns about the bus being used to prop up rail, Dos Santos-Tam said, “I think if you think of them as two separate entities maybe that criticism is fair, but this is part of one system.”

For the past several months, DTS has been on a press junket, making appearances at neighborhood boards including Waipahu, Kalihi and Aiea in an attempt to prepare residents for the impending changes.

“People were pretty happy to see the amount of new service we deployed,” Nouchi said, citing an over fourfold increase in bus riders on what used to be Route 74 in Aiea Heights and Halawa Heights. Some riders also said they were excited about the rail’s cleanliness and speed.

But at a few of the meetings, residents still expressed concerns over the changes. At a Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board meeting on May 17, board member Ken Farm said he was worried about shifting Route A off of King Street, where it supported Route 1 on a busy corridor that serviced several schools including Farrington High School.

In an interview, Farm said that introducing Route 1L in place of Route A “is not going to be enough.”

“We never had enough to begin with because of the amount of people that use it,” Farm said. “I don’t think that they took in consideration what it will look like when school starts.”

The state Department of Education recently announced that driver shortages would force the cancellation or suspension of school bus service at several campuses, forcing many students to take public transportation.

Nouchi said his office is actively monitoring passenger loads on the Kalihi corridor and others where alterations have been made.

“If we need to make any changes, we will do that,” Nouchi said.

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