LIHUE — Ridership is up. A new shuttle has been purchased and arrives on island Friday. And Experience Kauai will continue running its North Shore shuttle service past the three-month pilot period.
“We’re doing awesome,” EK owner James Reis said Tuesday.
On Nov. 1, EK began running the service, which moves residents and visitors between North Shore resorts and popular visitor destinations in Princeville, Hanalei, Wainiha, Haena and Kee.
George Costa, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, said the primary goal was to reduce the number of cars that travel to the Hanalei-Haena area and park at Kee Beach.
“As we near the end of the three-month pilot, we realize that there is a significant need for the shuttle for area residents,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “Ridership has been rising steadily with area residents taking advantage of this service as well as visitors.”
Others, however, see the shuttle as a threat to their own business and say it has failed to accomplish the very goal on which it was established.
In its first month, the shuttle saw 1,014 riders. In December, that number jumped to 1,529. And through the first 19 days of January, about 1,100 passengers have used the service.
Reis said numbers show there is support, and that ridership is split between residents and tourists.
“It’s a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I really didn’t think we would have this response.”
An initial $75,000 grant from the county covers operational costs through Feb. 1. And Costa said he and other county officials are in the process of identifying additional funding, both inside and outside the county, for an extended pilot period.
“The goal is still to bring the service to self-sustainability,” he wrote.
Reis said this experience has been much different then his attempt to launch the service three years ago, when his shuttles ran completely empty for the first three weeks — not a single passenger. 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.
Reis is confident the project will prove successful.
“We’re slow right now,” he said, referring to a lull in business following the peak holiday season. “But what we have done is found a great niche with the community, and they’re just embracing us.”
Local taxi companies, however, say the new service has come at their own expense.
“The word is ‘lost,’ not ‘losing,’” said Princeville Taxi owner Jeff Allen, when asked how the shuttle was impacting his business. “He’s pretty much taken over.”
Allen said his biggest hit has been in his calls for rides up the hill between Hanalei and Princeville. Before the shuttle started running, Allen said he was making an average of $100 per evening. Now, he said he’s lucky to have two calls per week.
Sue Mahelona, owner of Sue’s Northside Taxi & Tours, said that while her business has taken a hit, she doesn’t have anything against the shuttle — except that those behind it made it seem as if there was no other option to get around.
“We’ve been out here for years,” she said of her company.
Both Mahelona and Janice Smolenski, owner of North Shore Cab Company, both said the shuttle has done nothing to reduce congestion at Kee Beach. And unlike EK, Smolenski said she and other cab companies aren’t asking store owners and resorts for the money to run their businesses.
“Why should the people of Kauai be paying for the tourists to be riding around on the North Shore?” she asked.
Smolenski said the holiday season is usually her busiest time of the year. This year, however, she described it as a dud.
“We’re all losing money,” she said.
Reis said it’s hard to hear people say Experience Kauai is taking business away from others, as that was never his intention, and that if he owned a taxi company he would likely feel the same way. However, he said, the EK shuttle provides the community with options.
“I think everybody should have a right to a choice, and not everybody can afford a taxi,” he said.
It is a service Reis believes is important. And the county says it is on board with helping to ensure the project proves successful.
“The county would like to continue to help this effort in whatever we way we can with support from Princeville and Hanalei businesses,” Costa said. “Princeville Development has donated $75,000 to Experience Kauai to go toward the purchase of a new shuttle, which will help to sustain this service.”
Reis said the new 12-passenger, diesel shuttle arrives on island Friday.
To create awareness in the first few weeks of operation, EK was charging introductory fares of $2 each way for visitors and $1 each way for kamaaina. Those fares have since been raised to $4 and $2, respectively.