High-profile thefts, crippled fleet among problems plaguing troubled transit division

Stolen buses, missing money, and a massive project way past due. Hawaii County mass transit is in disarray.

Always Investigating went to Hilo to follow up on a cascade of tips and complaints about transit issues, and we found even more problems, but also folks at the top very frank about facing them head on.

Not one, but two high-profile bus thefts by the same joy-riding suspect made big news statewide, but that's far from the only issue hitting the transit division of Hawaii County.

Related Coverage: Man charged after Hawaii County bus stolen, involved in crash | Hawaii island man accused of stealing second county bus in a month

Our visit to the island started at the mass transit baseyard, which now looks more like a bus graveyard. The fleet that once numbered more than 50 buses has been hobbled by about half.

The county is paying for private tour buses to help.

"When we have buses that are down, we contract private people to do that," said county managing director Wil Okabe. "It comes about to maybe $1,000 to $5,700 a month to rent from these two companies to assist us in achieving our objective."

That's on top of your fixed costs for the county regardless.

Oahu hand-me-down buses are being salvaged for parts.

Gleaming by comparison amid the rubble, a double-decker bus didn't run for long before being idled a year and a half ago awaiting a part. Beyond all repair sits the burnt carcass of a $70,000 fleet repair truck stolen just after purchase and found torched in Fern Forest months before the two-time big bus heists.

"What we did do was hire security to come in for certain hours of the evening, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. when all personnel is gone from the baseyard," explained interim transit administrator Tiffany Kai.

That's on top of the security cameras installed elsewhere after another theft: the still unsolved disappearance of thousands of dollars in cash fares in spring 2016 from a closet in the transit office.

"This is the door they came through that was wedged open and made their way through the offices where we kept our keys and got ahold of the keys and unlocked the bolts to this door," Kai said.

Always Investigating asked, did they know where to get the keys from?

"I'm not too sure," Kai said. "They went through a bunch of drawers and through our desks."

County police investigated, but came away with no leads, no arrests. Sources say it could have been as much as $10,000; management says it was less -- anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000.

"I believe that was the first time that it occurred," Kai said. "It was on a Saturday that I had come in to pick up a mechanic to transport him to pick up a part, and we noticed that the back door was wedged open, so that's how we noticed that's how the theft occurred."

The county auditor has started a cash management audit of mass transit. The auditor couldn't disclose to us yet what she's found so far.

Related Link: Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency

"We did an initial walkthrough with the auditor," Kai said, "so at that point in time, they gave us some really helpful hints how to manage our cash handling."

They also added better lighting, cameras, and a safe that can lock up all the money instead of stashing it in the closet. The cash gets taken away from the site more often.

"We're doing the best we can with what we have," Kai said, "and we did step up with our preventive measures to make sure that our assets are protected."

They're counting down the days until they get to leave this place for a brand new facility that had a due date of last fall. We followed Okabe there, down a long and winding road, past the dump, twisting and turning nearly past where even Google maps dares to go.

"It is a remote area," Okabe said.

The distance isn't the only concern, considering mass transit's hard luck with thefts lately.

"It's a very low fence," Okabe pointed out. "I'm sure even you, Gina, could hop this fence."

There’s also a human-sized gap under the gate, just in case a would-be thief can’t jump.

Always Investigating asked, who approved all this?

"This contract was done before this administration took over," Okabe said. "There are some challenges. There are definitely are some challenges."

Challenges like the sparkling new garage that needs completely new floor paint after the first enormous coat started flaking already. It's a more than $11 million project that was supposed to be move-in ready by last November.

Now it could be early 2018 at best.

The county says the contractor owes the county $990 for each day late, but the contractor pointed out other change orders it's waiting for the county on, like a massive generator that has to be relocated, likely fencing and security upgrades, even a missing water meter and phone lines needed even for the otherwise ready offices and locker rooms to be used.

Related Link: Hawaii County Mass Transportation Commission

Always Investigating asked Okabe, how does the county get a handle on this mass transit mess without costing taxpayers even more than is necessary to get things turned around?

"I think one of the things is we need to be accountable," Okabe said. "We need to look at the whole plan in regards to the mass transit system. With any county government, we need to look at the concerns we're facing with regard to fiscal responsibility, but I think surveillance, security, all these things are needed to make sure the public's money is being well spent."

The biggest impact from all of these issues is service. There have been hundreds of thousands of rides lost in recent years, and we found out that's having a big impact on the poor and rural areas.

We're digging more into the big 20-year transit plan that's being developed now, and finding out what it will take, and what it will cost, to get those people served. That's coming up next week as our Always Investigating report on Hawaii County mass transit continues.

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