Bus ridership slide continues, will it recover with rail

Always Investigating

Public transportation usage on Oahu is down millions of rides a year, this as the feds tell me Honolulu has to deliver on projected rail ridership set a long time ago before the plunge. The head of the bus system says he believes it will turn upward when the train starts, critics have their doubts.

Anyone riding a crowded bus route might find it hard to believe but bus ridership has hit a long rough patch. Just over four years ago The Bus had peaks above 6 million rides a month. Today, it’s seen dips down into the 4.8 million range. 

This is not a local trend, this is a national trend that is happening in many places on the mainland, said Roger Morton, Oahu Transit Services.

The head of The Bus tells me low gas prices have more people able to afford driving on their own. Biki has taken about 4,500 riders a day onto two wheels instead of 4. Privately operated tour trolleys are growing, and there’s ridesharing

I’m told there are about 3,000 Uber Lyft drivers on Oahu and obviously that didn’t exist 5 years ago, said Morton. 

He says some cities like Seattle and L.A. are bucking the trend and thinks Honolulu can pull back upward too. 

I want to see the ridership go back up obviously, said Morton. 

How are we going to do it? 

We’re putting a lot of investment into rail and we plan that rail will make a big change for us, it will be a big game changer for us. Why? Because it will take our buses out of that slow traffic and it will give folks an opportunity to have a fast ride into town from the west side and that’s where most of our ridership comes from is from the west side, said Morton, Well there will be some reconfiguration of the bus system and TheBus system will look more like a feeder bus system but not all routes. Overall, routes will be increased and there will be more frequency.

Rail critics say the train will detract from the bus and that if lower public transportation trends hold, the operational subsidies taxpayers already pay for bus and will for rail will have to be even higher. 

All the experts that I have talked to or read about who looked at the ridership projections for our rail project have said they were way overly optimistic at the beginning and with the benefit of hindsight it’s just crystal clear that they’re simply wrong, said rail critic Randy Roth. 

Rail’s original environmental impact statement said rail would have about 116,000 riders a day. But then later bumped up that projection to more than 121,000 riders, all while TheBus projected more than 330,000 daily boardings whereas today they’re seeing well under 200,000 regularly. I asked the Federal Transit Administration, is the city required to readjust when things change so substantially from the original plan? The feds told me: Projects are not re-rated, including ridership projections and that they expect cities who get the grant money to deliver on the promise of ridership.

I think the FTA is complicit in the problems. What we have in Hawaii is, if not fraud, is borderline fraud. The whole thing is based on a foundation of deception, said Roth.

When asked whether those ridership projections still hold? 

I think they’re very possible. We have the 5th highest ridership per capita right now in the nation, said Morton.

The head of TheBus says they are going to beef up capacity on crowded routes such as the 13, 19 and 20 — those serve UH, the airport and Aiea-to-Waikiki. A big expansion is also coming this fall for windward service, and he points out Honolulu is in the top 5 public transit ridership per capita just behind cities like New York and San Francisco. We’ll keep an eye on whether ridership turns upward.

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