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Bus hubbub: New interim administrator, big changes in the works

  • A Polynesian Adventure Tours shuttle substitutes a Hele-On bus Tuesday on the Hele-On intra-Kona route headed toward a stop at Kona Community Hospital. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Hawaii County bought these smaller buses earlier this year. The four new 25-passenger buses are currently getting only limited use as social distancing rules allow for only seven passengers at a time. (Hawaii County/Courtesy photo)

Mayor Mitch Roth’s administration has officially ruled out land owned by a politically connected Pahoa resident as the site for a bus hub, overturning steps taken by the previous administration.

The Roth administration has also hired as interim transit administrator John Andoh, an experienced transit veteran who once worked at the agency. He’s stepped in while transit administrator Brenda Carreira is on leave, Managing Director Lee Lord said.

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“We believe he can make a great difference to the Mass Transit Agency and have full confidence in his abilities,” Lord said in a letter Friday to County Council members. “Mr. Andoh has hit the ground running in applying for grants, implementing actions of the Transit and Transportation Master Plan, launching marketing programs, building relationships, continuing to get buses rebuilt and improving work quality at the Mass Transit Agency.”

Andoh announced the agency is preparing to launch new transit services islandwide Sept. 5, based on the Transit Master Plan.

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit, said she’s inviting Andoh to the Aug. 17 committee meeting to brief the council and the community on the new plans.

Carreira has been on leave since early May.

The county in 2019 tried to fast-track a purchase of 1.45 acres for a bus hub at the intersection of Pahoa Bypass Road and Kapoho Road, known as “the Hub,” for $900,000.

Owner Gilbert Aguinaldo, vice chairman of the Windward Planning Commission and a distant relative of Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, said he was under the impression the county was proceeding with the purchase, based on its actions.

The owners signed and submitted a purchase agreement to the county Dec. 6, 2019.

County officials never countersigned, however.

The County Council in early 2000 agreed to Carreira’s request to move $1.45 million of general excise tax money into a Mass Transit Agency account to buy the property.

The county hired SSFM International to work with the community and Mass Transit to prepare that plan, which includes the recommendation to build transit hubs in Kona, Waimea and Pahoa. Consultants narrowed it down to six sites for the Pahoa hub, the first hub under consideration.

In her request, Carreira noted that the transit master plan projected land acquisition to occur the following year, “but land for Pahoa hub became available this fiscal year.” Council members, though, said they were voting on moving the money without it being tied to a particular site.

Consultants had recommended leasing Aguinaldo’s Site 6 as an interim solution until the county could develop a more favorable property, such as Site 3, near the new police and fire stations. Site 6 would fit just 35 parking spaces, making it less than ideal for park-and-ride, a consultant report said.

Two of the parcels are government-owned and wouldn’t require purchasing.

But the administration proceeded with an appraisal on Site 6, and the purchase agreement was in the works, when Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder started asking questions. The responses at previous council meetings were confusing, and at times, conflicting.

Lord sent Aguinaldo a letter May 28, withdrawing the county’s interest in the property.

“The team is not currently including your property for consideration as a site for the Bus Hub in this project because it does not meet the size requirements for the size bus hub recommended by SSFM nor the size and volume need by the Pahoa community,” he said in the letter. “You should, therefore, move forward with any other opportunities you might have with the property.”

Aguinaldo, who’s basically sat on his property for more than two years thinking the county was going to buy it, has contacted an attorney and is asking for county records and meeting minutes that he thinks support his claim the county had made an agreement with him. Among his requests is one for the July 31, 2019, meeting in Pahoa Community Center pertaining to the Hub and Spoke community meeting.

There are 11 sites being considered in Kona: Old Airport, Back of Kona Commons, back of KTA Super Store, back of West Hawaii Today building, park-and-ride lot near King Kamehameha Hotel, between Kuakini Highway and Likana Lane across from Olohi Road, within proposed Niumalu Marketplace development, across from Niumalu Marketplace east of Henry Street, Kmart and an empty lot across from Huggo’s on Alii Drive.

The program is expected to cost $35 million over the next six years, with funding coming from general obligation bonds.

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A hub-and-spoke system allows smaller buses to circulate through communities, picking up passengers and dropping them off at a hub, where the larger, longer-haul buses will take them longer distances.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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