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'Your life is the bus'

Long early-morning commutes are a painful necessity for people who cannot afford homes closer to their jobs

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 1:19 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

HILO » For nine years, Kenneth Kapeliela has taken the 3:30 a.m. bus from his home in Hilo to his hotel job in Wai­ko­loa, a two-hour drive away.

At 52, Kapeliela is resigned to the grueling commute, a fact of life in a place where jobs are scarce — and often found a considerable drive from where the affordable housing is.

But that doesn't mean the insanity of the commute is lost on him.

At 3:15 a.m. on a recent weekday, Kape­li­ela looked around at the growing crowd of hotel workers gathered at the Hilo Bayfront bus stop and shook his head.

"We're all mental," he said.

Hawaii County has been operating the 3:30 a.m. from Hilo to Waikoloa since 1998.

But in recent years, as the population in Hawaii island's Puna district has ballooned, the 3:30 a.m. bus to Wai­ko­loa's resorts has turned into the most heavily used run on the route.

Workers arrive up to 45 minutes early at the Hilo Bayfront stop to ensure they secure a spot on the bus. Recently the county purchased a double-decker bus to accommodate the route's high ridership.

On average the 3:30 a.m. route attracts about 72 passengers, up from about 45 five years ago. The Hilo-to-South Kona bus that leaves at 3:50 a.m. is also packed these days.

Many bus riders park in Hilo, then jump on the bus.

About a half-hour before the bus arrived recently on a weekday morning, riders gathered under the Hilo Bayfront's bus shelter, burrowed in their coats. Some had blankets over their shoulders or folded over their arms.

In the parking lot a few dozen more people waited in their cars, sipping coffee or trying to catch a little sleep.

Around 3:20 a.m. a line began to form on the sidewalk. People stamped their feet to keep warm in the chilly morning air or placed belongings in line to save their spot, then headed back to the bus shelter or their cars.

"Your life is the bus," said Hilo resident Marsela Terreira, 53, who has been catching the early-morning bus for six years. "You've got to do what you've got to do."

Claude Carvalho, 50, started taking the early Wai­ko­loa bus in the 1990s. He lives in Puna, so he commutes about 30 minutes to Hilo every morning, where he parks his car to catch the bus.

Carvalho, a hotel purchasing agent, said the commute wears on him. "It's just hard," he said.

Helene Kaupe, 54, also of Puna, agreed but said there are few alternatives. Salaries at the hotels, she said, are competitive. But living in South Kohala, where property prices are higher than Hilo or Puna, is out of the question.

"People can't make it on minimum-wage jobs in Hawaii," she said.

Kaupe drove to work in Wai­ko­loa for nine years but couldn't afford it any longer, with rising gas prices and wear and tear on her car.

Kaupe has been taking the bus for two years.

And she said in that period alone, ridership appears to have grown.

Hilo resident Nimai Rivet, 36, a bookkeeper for a marketing company in Kona, was trying to find the bright side to her early commute.

Her car broke down, so she was grateful for the 3:50 a.m. bus to Kona, which is also packed with workers. It was her first time taking the early-morning bus.

Rivet has to make the commute to Kona one day a week and get there by 6:30 a.m.

That one day of driving from Hilo, she said, costs her about $30. The one-way fare on the county bus is $1.

As Rivet closed her umbrella and prepared to board the Kona bus, she said, "There's a lot of people here."

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