Bus fares to raise $500K


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii County’s Mass Transit Agency estimates that its $1 bus fare enacted last July will raise about $500,000 this fiscal year, down slightly from original projections.

The agency initially estimated that the fare would raise $560,000.

The County Council approved the fare to help balance the county’s operating budget. It ended a gratis program that lasted about seven years.

Agency Administrator Tom Brown said the small shortfall will not impact Hele-On bus service, which remains largely subsidized. No other fare increases are planned, he said.

But the $1 ticket price has turned away some riders, or at least caused them to take fewer trips.

Through March, Hele-On saw a 2.3 percent drop in ridership in its 2011-2012 fiscal year that started in July.

Ridership dropped significanlty then, when the bus service saw 7.7 percent fewer uses.

Brown said lower ridership was expected but he added it has been steadily rising as passengers become more comfortable with spending a buck per trip.

“I’m sure we are gong to be back to normal in the coming months,” he said.

Bus users interviewed at the Hilo’s downtown terminal expressed mixed feelings on the fare.

Crystal Halin, 52, said she thought the service is well worth the cost.

“We’re fortunate,” she said, adding that riders in Honolulu pay over twice as much. “We get to ride the bus for a dollar.”

Shawn Afong, 22, said he spends much of the day riding the bus, either to work or visit family.

He said the one-way $1 fare adds up quickly, and sometimes he has to ask for change.

“Sometimes I don’t have the money,” Afong said. “My money goes mostly to rent and food.”

Fares ranged between 75 cents and $6 before the county introduced island-wide free transportation in 2004.

The current fare does not apply to students, seniors and the disabled, who receive exemptions.

Riders can buy a $30 monthly pass.

They can also buy blocks of tickets that don’t expire, said Georgia Pinsky, office manager for the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association.

The association sells tickets at the downtown terminal.

Pinsky said she expected bus use would drop more once the fare started.

“I thought people would come in and buy tickets, and it would kind of stop,” she said. “It’s been very consistent.”

Brown said the agency’s double-decker bus that went into service last June has so far been a success.

The bus is mainly used to shuttle hotel workers back and forth between Hilo and Waikoloa, but it also takes a daily trip from Kona to Waimea.

It has a capacity of 89 and averages 75 people between Hilo and Waikoloa. The trip to Waimea averages 50 riders.

Brown said the $899,000 bus, which has almost double the capacity of single-story buses, helps save the county money.

He said the agency wants to buy at least one more double-decker to service other high-demand routes as “soon as possible.”

Federal funds paid for 80 percent of the double-decker’s purchase price, and Brown said the agency would need grant dollars to buy any new buses.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.