Ridership leaps 78% as Big Isle adds free buses
HILO » Free bus rides have sparked a 78 percent jump in ridership in one week on Hawaii County buses from job-poor Hilo to resort work in South Kohala, says county transit manager Tom Brown.
Riders on the bus to Hilo from remote Kau jumped 87 percent, and the shorter haul from North to South Kohala grew 61 percent, Brown said.
"I thought it made a lot of sense," said a young woman giving only her first name, Jay, who rode to a house-cleaning job in Waimea. "The economy is so bad here (in Hilo) anyway."
Suddenly there's standing room only on the two-hour trip between East and West Hawaii, said four-year veteran rider Charlie Aniol.
That's better than having tired drivers on the road for two hours before dawn and late in the afternoon, said Kona resident Gerald Garcia. "If you've got tired drivers, you've got dangerous drivers," he said.
Since last year, the county has had two free "Kokua" routes, one each in West Hawaii and Puna.
Just over a week ago, Mayor Harry Kim announced he was expanding the Kokua program to all routes for 90 days.
Kim needs the approval of the County Council to extended the program beyond that.
In a recent Council committee meeting, Kim's proposal got preliminary approval in a 7-0 vote, Brown said. Council members want a report from Brown in March, about the time the budget for the next fiscal year is put together.
Kim wanted to expand free buses for two reasons: to reduce traffic and to let working people spend money on their families instead of on gas.
"They're trying to do something outside the box," said Kona resident Garcia.
Free buses will save lives, he said, citing long driving distances on the Big Island, sometimes on narrow, winding roads. "Not too many people get killed in downtown driving," he said.
But Brown was inspired by free urban bus programs in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, Ore. The Big Island program is the first in Hawaii.
The word "free" has a ring to it. A house cleaner who gave her name as Angelie, a business partner of Jay, said she would spend $20 to drive to her job in Waimea rather than pay bus fare, which cost half as much. But the free ride convinced the two women to ride the bus instead.
The loss of bus fares will cost the system $25,000 per month, to be paid by county money left over from last year, Brown said. New funding must be found for the next fiscal year, he said.
The recent jump in fuel prices will have little effect on the buses. Diesel, which the buses run on, is not included in the state gas cap, Brown said. While the price the county paid for gasoline went up 18 cents from August to September, the county's cost for diesel rose only 8 cents, he said.
Brown has further plans for expansion, with 10 new buses arriving by the end of this year, $2 million in county funding and more parking areas where drivers can park and ride a bus.
Hilo ready to ride
Free Big Island bus rides have boosted daily passenger averages: