Council scuttles shuttle

The North Shore Shuttle will come to an abrupt halt at 9 tonight after the County Council approved a motion to eliminate funding for the service by a 4-2 vote Thursday.

The decision was by far the largest individual cut in the first day of decision-making as the council works to balance the budget.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr., who championed the shuttle as part of his Holo Holo 2020 vision, said the vote was his biggest disappointment of the day. But he said the idea is good and this is just a setback.

“We’ve just got to regroup,” the mayor said.

The county had previously provided $200,000 to fund a six-month pilot program, which began in November and provided more than 9,200 rides. The goal was to provide more affordable public transportation to previously unserved areas of the North Shore, while also reducing traffic and parking congestion at the end of the road at Kee, which has exploded in popularity over the past few years as more tourists come to Kauai specifically to hike the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast.

The mayor had asked for $180,000 to continue the program in his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. The shuttle would have also been funded with rider fares and contributions from the North Shore business community that benefits from tourists using the shuttle, as well as employees who rely on it to get to work.

Several members of the council, however, felt that the financial numbers weren’t sustainable, and that it would be irresponsible to ask taxpayers to continue paying for the service at a time when the county is already planning to dip into reserve funds to balance the budget.

Council Chair Mel Rapozo said the shuttle is just not something the county can afford.

“It all comes down to what’s necessary,” he said.

Rapozo said the county previously provided funding to get the pilot program off the ground, but that it needed to become self-sustaining. He added if the county believes the shuttle is necessary, then there needs to be a competitive bidding process to make sure taxpayers are getting the best deal.

Office of Economic Development Director George Costa expressed optimism that another solution could be found, and echoed the mayor’s sentiments.

“This is just a speedbump, not a roadblock,” he said.

Costa said one of the challenges to making a shuttle program successful is developing a parking facility, so that people from other sides of the island have a place to park so they can then take the bus the rest of the way to Kee and Haena.

He agreed with Rapozo’s point that to expand the program beyond a pilot, they would need to put it out for competitive bidding.

“There’s no doubt that we need to do something to relieve congestion on the North Shore, and the pilot shuttle project has proven that it can be part of the solution,” said Kauai Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho.

Kanoho, who sits on the advisory committee for the Haana State Park Master Plan, said that the data gathered from the pilot project will be helpful to those implementing the master plan in the future.

One surprise the county learned from the pilot program is that it wasn’t dominated by tourists – almost half of the riders, 45 percent, were Kauai residents, many who used the shuttle to get to work.

Kauai’s public buses are too large to go over the narrow, one-way bridges and do not serve the communities beyond Hanalei.

That aspect was a main concern for Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura, who voted against eliminating funds for the shuttle service, along with councilman Gary Hooser.

Yukimura acknowledged that those who voted to eliminate funding had some valid points, but said she was not comfortable getting rid of the program until there is a plan in place to ensure reliable public transportation on the North Shore.

James Reis, whose company Experience Kauai ran the shuttle bus pilot program, said he was disappointed because this is a good thing for tourism, but his bigger concern is for the residents.

“This is going to cause a huge problem – these people depend on it,” Reis said. “It’s a means for them to get to and from work.”

Princeville Taxi driver Jeff Allen was glad to hear the shuttle service was ending.

He said the shuttle hurt his business, and he rarely operates in the North Shore anymore because he cannot compete against the taxpayer-supported shuttle.

“I basically left the North Shore. Maybe one call every other night,” Allen said.

Even still, Allen agrees a solution is needed.

“There is absolutely a need to get people out to the end of the road,” he said. “That is a definite, necessary thing.”

St. Regis Princeville General Manager Todd Raessler said he was disappointed to hear about the situation even though the hotel hadn’t driven a lot of business through the shuttle and he didn’t anticipate a huge impact on guests, although he said the hotel does have some employees who use it.

“I think it was a neat thing to try, very innovative thinking,” Raessler said. “It is obviously a loss to the North Shore.”

One thing is certain: if anyone already camping at the Kalalau Valley was relying on the shuttle to get home this weekend, they are going to be hitchhiking.

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Ryan Kazmirzack, government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428.

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