Puna community mulls six possible bus hub sites

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A nearly 20-acre lot near the Pahoa Police Station is one of six locations identified around the community for a proposed bus hub in Pahoa.

More than two dozen people gathered Wednesday night in Pahoa to discuss the merits of six locations identified around the community for a proposed bus hub.

Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency plans to increase bus service in Puna and covert to a hub-and-spoke system, meaning there are two types of routes that meet at a central location where passengers can transfer from one to the other.

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Long routes would run direct from the Pahoa hub to Hilo using large buses, while new circulator routes would travel within communities and include Hawaiian Beaches-Nanawale-Seaview and Hawaiian Paradise Park-Ainaloa-Orchidland. These routes would use smaller buses and continue throughout the day.

Cheryl Soon with consulting firm SSFM International led the presentation and told the crowd that the Puna Community Development Plan, adopted in 2008, called for an islandwide master plan for a transit system and recommended a hub-and-spoke system in Puna.

The county hired SSFM to work with the community and Mass Transit to prepare that plan, she explained. Within the master plan, it was recommended to build transit hubs in Kona, Waimea and Pahoa.

“We had a meeting in March where we started the conversation with the community, and people started coming up with alternate sites that they thought of,” she said. “So we’re back here tonight to talk about the sites and the information we learned about them to see if they’re suitable and, most importantly, get feedback from you.”

Soon said bus hubs should be in a central location, close to businesses, schools and shops, and can include shelters and benches, multiple pull-outs for the buses to wait and load, proper signage and lighting, places for passengers to be dropped off, locations for taxi or ride-share pickups, possible park-and-ride spaces and possibly bathroom facilities.

Six possible locations for a hub near Pahoa were discussed:

Site 1 — near Puna Kai Shopping Center, which is currently under construction. Soon said land directly behind the center is owned by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The shopping center is leasing some of that land for parking, and the concept would be to lease additional lands from DLNR.

Site 2 — between Puna Kai and Pahoa Marketplace. Soon said that land is privately owned “and we don’t know if the owner has an interest in selling the property.”

Site 3 — county-owned land adjacent to the Pahoa police and fire stations.

Site 4 — across the street from the Pahoa Community Center, the former Akebono Theater.

“But we think that’s off the table now, because we think that they actively have other uses they’re putting it to,” Soon said.

Site 5 — county-owned land behind Pahoa District Park, near the skate park.

Site 6 — intersection of Pahoa Bypass Road and Pahoa Kapoho Road. This site is “ironically, what you used to call The Hub,” Soon said.

During the hourlong discussion, support was voiced for a number of the proposed locations. Much discussion centered around sites 3, 5 and 6.

Stephanie Bath said that during discussions about the Puna Community Development Plan, people wanted park-and-ride locations, but security was a concern.

Among other benefits, Bath said Site 3 would be close to the police station, and the security might make people feel safer leaving their cars there.

Pahoa business owner Amedeo Markoff backed Site 5. He said the biggest problem in Pahoa is the lack of parking.

“So if you can bring parking to Pahoa, you’re going to be winners right there already. So anywhere close to town — I know there’s issues with congestion, but reality is the businesses here need more parking.”

Site 5, he said, is “probably your best bet” because the county already owns the property and it brings business into town.

“So if it’s a park-and-ride, you have big space there for one thing … and I think the traffic is mitigated by the bonus of having additional parking and keeping the ridership close to town so that they’ll shop at the stores and eat in the restaurants, all services they need,” Markoff said.

A representative for Gilbert Aquinado, owner of Site 6, said that location “has a lot of benefits” and has been developed already, with a concrete access driveway and permitting already complete. That site also is close to Pahoa schools and would be safer for children and adults, he said.

County Managing Director Wil Okabe said after the meeting that the Pahoa hub will be the first Hawaii Island bus hub outside of Hilo.

“This is very important for (the community) because they travel from here, all the way to Hilo, to Waikoloa for jobs and that’s really important.”

According to Okabe, after all information is gathered, SSFM will make a recommendation to the county’s transit administrator, and the mayor’s office will propose it to the County Council.

There’s no timeline in place, he said, and each of the sites discussed Wednesday presents different challenges.

With revenue from the general excise tax, Okabe said the county has been able to start ordering buses, which should arrive by January.

Soon told the crowd there is money in the budget to begin site development. She’d love to see the hub ready by January, “but I don’t think all sites could be ready by then.”

After the meeting, she said the proposed bus hub could cost $2.5 million after the site is prepared, which is a “very, very rough” estimate.

Okabe said the county has that cost budgeted from GET tax revenue.

Ashley Kierkiewicz, County Councilwoman representing Puna, attended the meeting and said afterward there is a huge need to provide reliable transportation to the community.

For Kierkiewicz, though, it’s the matter of getting the proposed hub “off the ground” sooner rather than later.

“So we have a lot of options on the table, but it’s like, what can we stand up right now?”

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Knowing buses are on the way, “I want them to stay in Puna,” she said. “I don’t want them to go to other communities. I want them to be deployed in Puna, and so the sooner we stand up the hub, the quicker our community’s able to benefit.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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