It was a bright morning in Kula. He was an older guy, very clean and neat, although his clothing was well-worn. From his appearance, it was easy to guess he didn't have a lot in the way of financial resources. "What's the time?" he asked. When told, he said "I better get to the bus stop."
The stop, marked by a small sign, was just up the road in front of the Waiakoa Gym. A low, stone wall made a handy seat for the people waiting for a ride down to Pukalani where they could make a connection into town.
Mickey, a Kula character usually dressed in a flowered "suit," can often be found sitting near the bus stop sign. He delights in hailing everyone who drives by. If the person behind the wheel appears to be Hawaiian, Mickey yells a greeting in fluent Hawaiian.
Soon enough, the older guy climbed aboard a Maui Bus, a fairly recent addition to the Kula landscape. The small county bus looks a lot like the buses tapping the tourist trade. The Kula bus runs from Pukalani to Rice Park. The route along Lower Kula Road makes sense. That's where the houses are.
A lot of the time, there's only one or two passengers, sometimes older folks and sometimes youngsters. But, riding the bus is a good alternative for folks forced to hitchhike or rely on family and friends for lack of a car. The number of riders seems to be increasing. The aged or disabled can arrange rides on an MEO bus making a twice-a-day run. The Maui Bus runs on a 90-minute schedule all day.
In the decade or so since a very limited bus service was set up in Wailuku, routes have been added to Kahului, Kihei, Lahaina and Upcountry. For a growing number of individuals, the Maui Bus has become a necessity. The longer the system operates, the more riders there will be. It takes a little time to wean folks away from cars, even when it becomes financially crippling to pay for gasoline, repairs and insurance.
Public transportation isn't a new idea on Maui. At one time, Hawaiian Sugar & Commercial Co. put up red "labor station" signs in Kahului. A truck with benches in the back would go from sign to sign, picking up workers. Until the mid-1960s, the public could ride a train running from Wailuku to Haiku. There was a bus system serving Makawao and Paia.
Around 1970, a survey was conducted to see if a county bus system would be financially feasible. The idea went nowhere. Planners figured there weren't enough individual gathering sites to produce the necessary number of riders. That was when Maui's population was about a third of what it is today.
Anyone doubting a widespread bus system could work on Maui need look no further than Oahu. Honolulu is also a good example of how an all-encompassing bus system along with multilane highways just aren't enough. A little foresight and a lot of political courage can prevent Maui from turning into "another Honolulu."
Today's bus system could be the feeder for a light-rail system connecting Kahului with Wailea on one end and Kaanapali on the other.
"Why should my taxes go to subsidize a rail system?" opponents argue, ignoring the fact that taxes subsidize highways at a cost of something like $1 million a mile for a single lane. Imagine the cost of adding lanes to Honoapiilani Highway through the pali.
A major cost factor for Honolulu's rail line involves buying land through developed areas. Right now, major lines on Maui would go mostly across undeveloped land. It's a good bet commuters would find riding a fast train preferable to sitting in slow traffic - whether riding a bus or driving.
The voters recognized the need for public transportation when they approved a charter amendment setting up a Maui County Department of Transportation. The department seems incapable of looking beyond today's needs. Which local politician will have the moxie to push for a bus-train system?
The cost doesn't necessarily have to be underwritten totally by taxes. A private, nonprofit corporation could be set up with far-flung resorts and individuals buying stock. Ordinary individuals paid most of the cost for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. And, that was during the Great Depression.
To paraphrase the movie, build efficient public transportation and the riders will come. Today, it's a dream. Tomorrow, it should be a reality.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.