PRINCEVILLE — When Experience Kauai tried to launch a North Shore shuttle service three years ago, things backfired in a big way.
For the first three weeks, shuttles ran completely empty: not a single passenger, only a driver day after day, according to EK owner James Reis.
“It was really harsh,” he said.
Within a few months, the service was running on an on-call basis only. And by the end of the six-month pilot period, it flopped completely. Still, Reis believes in the project, so much so that he recently quit his long-time job in a second effort to see things through.
“We’re here to help the community,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get better turnout this time. It seems to have more support.”
On Nov. 1, EK launched its Princeville to Hanalei route, which runs between the Westin Princeville and Hanalei Bay Pier, with stops at several other resorts, the Princeville Center and Ching Young Village.
Nov. 10 marked the first day for a separate Princeville to Kee Beach route, with stops at major Princeville resorts and Haena Beach Park.
On his first morning as driver of the Princeville-Kee route, Bernard Gosset picked up six passengers, beginning at 6 a.m. with a family from China headed to hike the Kalalau Trail.
“The plan is really to try to get the tourists to divorce their car for a day and go to the beach and take the shuttle so they don’t have to worry about parking, about walking to the beach from wherever they’re going to end up parking,” Gosset said on his way to Kee last Monday morning.
As Gosset pulled the then-empty 12-passenger van over at Haena Beach Park around 10 a.m., California resident Michael Lee strolled over — backpack and camping gear in tow — to inquire about where it was headed. Two dollars later and a quick pit stop at a jam-packed, bottlenecked Kee Beach, he was on his way back to Princeville.
Prior to his trip to the island, Lee read online about the planned shuttle.
With no intention of renting a car, he decided it sounded like a perfect way to get to Haena Beach Park campground, where he planned to pitch a tent for the week.
For obvious reasons, Lee didn’t spot the shuttle to Haena and Kee until last Monday, its first day on the road.
“I saw it just then,” he said, after waving down Gosset. “I thought, ‘OK, let’s try.’”
While he said the service is a well-conceived idea, Lee thinks alleviating the mass congestion at the end of the road could be better accomplished by requiring visitors to park in a designated area of Hanalei and running shuttles between there and Kee Beach only. He also recommended installing signage at each stop so people are aware of the service.
“Running a shuttle has to be cheaper than having to repave the road,” he said.
In its first two days of service, the Princeville-Hanalei route had zero riders, according to Reis. On day three, word began to trickle out, with the busiest day thus far tallying 26 customers. In its first 11 days on the road, 140 riders came aboard.
The Princeville-Kee route saw 25 riders in its first two days, according to Reis.
Less than two weeks in, he called business a “grand slam” compared to three years ago.
“Most of our ridership has been people who have rented cars and they just don’t want to drive,” he said.
Reis’ hope is that people see the service for the opportunity that it is. To be a success, it needs ridership, sponsorship and, perhaps most importantly, support from the community, especially resort concierges, he said.
“It’s use it or lose it,” he said. “It will be gone in six months if people don’t stand up (in support).”
John Young, president of the Rotary Club of Hanalei and assistant general manager of The Cliffs at Princeville, said he and The Cliffs support the shuttle for two main reasons — it will cut down on traffic, and will provide a better experience for visitors who will no longer have to deal with parking.
“That road just can’t handle the type of traffic that’s currently on it,” he said.
Young also said it only makes sense that at some point the shuttle becomes part of the Kauai Bus system.
Reis said it’s important people understand the service is a pilot project and routes are subject to change in response to community feedback. In fact, changes are already being discussed.
One concern, however, is that if there are too many stops, people will opt for their own vehicle, to save time getting from one place to the other, Reis said.
The Princeville-Hanalei service runs daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. using a single 15-passenger shuttle. Currently, the route includes eight stops and comes around every hour.
The Princeville to Kee route runs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. using a 12-passenger van. Originally, it included seven stops and came around about every hour and 30 minutes; however, Reis plans to update the schedule at the end of the month to include additional stops at the Ching Young Village and Wainiha General Store.
Mandy Hadley, who was given the Wainiha store along with her fiancé Kaili Olanolan and has lived in the area for 10 years, said that while she hasn’t heard much about the service, she supports it.
“I think a shuttle would be really cool,” she said.
Hadley also said she has spoken with several Wainiha residents who are excited about no longer having to hitchhike to and from work in Hanalei.
To create awareness and ridership, introductory fares of $2 each way for visitors and $1 each way for kamaaina are being offered. A $75,000 grant from the county will cover operational costs for the shuttle for the first three months of operation.
Reis said the grant money will only go so far, and that without support from resorts and local businesses the bus won’t continue to run.
“It’s going to be a moving target,” he said. “We’re asking for patience and feedback.”
Shuttle schedules can be found on the county’s website at www.kauai.gov. For more information contact Experience Kauai at 634-8348.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.