TheBus: The Legacy of Uncle Frank

This guest post is from a reader who comments regularly under the name “Engineer Scotty”

Last week, a good friend of mine who hails from Hawaii but now lives in the Portland area, posted a message on her Facebook page stating simply, “RIP Uncle Frank”. At first, I thought it was a eulogy for a deceased relative (and so did at least one other local commenter, who offered my friend condolences), but several Hawaiian friends offered praise for Uncle Frank, thanking him for “da bus”. Which led me off to Google and Wikipedia to find out just who Uncle Frank was.

Francis Fasi, known as Uncle Frank to many in the 50th state, was a Hawaiian politician who served over twenty years as mayor of Honolulu–six years as a Democrat, and twelve as a Republican. He also launched several unsuccessful runs for Governor from both major parties, and a few minor parties as well (minor parties play a bigger role in Hawaii politics than they do in Oregon). An iconoclast politician, Fasi was quite popular with the common folk in Hawaii’s capital city, if not with the political and business establishment. Much as Tom McCall is revered in Oregon, Fasi was well-loved in the islands by many. He died last week at the ripe old age of 89, and had only retired from politics in 2004.

Why, you may ask, am I writing about a Hawaii politician on an Portland, Oregon transit blog? Because of what many consider to be Fasi’s most enduring legacy and his gift to the people of Honolulu–the award-winning public transit system known simply as TheBus.

TheBus (or “da bus” to many), is a bus-based public transit system serving the island of Oahu. Similar in size to TriMet; TheBus operates a fleet of nearly 600 vehicles and serves nearly 72 million riders a year. This level of ridership is slightly larger than TriMet’s bus system (66 million boardings last year); though when you add MAX into the mix, TriMet’s daily boardings last year topped 100 million. The island of Oahu is about the same size as TriMet’s service district–just under 600 square miles. The populations are similar–Oahu’s population is about 1 million, the Tri-County area is about 1.5 million (most of whom live in the TriMet service district). In terms of per-capita transit ridership in US cities, TheBus claims to be sixth; TriMet claims to be seventh.

There are plenty of differences between bus service in Oahu and Portland. For one thing, the weather in Hawaii is better for waiting at bus stops. :) While Portland’s population is spread out through the metro area (with a significant concentration in between the West Hills and I-205), most Oahu residents live in a ring along the coast, rather than in the mountainous interior; with the largest concentration in Honolulu itself. An interesting statistical difference is the number of bus stops; TriMet has almost 7200 stops in its system whereas TheBus has slightly over half that number, at 4200. Driving is much more expensive in Hawaii, and while Oahu has interstates (!), the road system is far less developed in Honolulu. TheBus is the primary means for transporting children to school, as opposed to dedicated fleets of school busses, and the system is frequently used by tourists as well.

TheBus markets itself more aggressively than TriMet, trying to make riding the bus appear “cool”. Rotating color schemes are used on the rolling stock, rather than the staid tan/yellow/blue colorscheme TriMet uses (to say nothing of the ugly orange and brown). By many measures, TheBus’ efforts are successful–many Hawaiians embrace their local transit agency. There are probably few folks in town who “love” TriMet, and many of its most dedicated customers are also its harshest critics–many of whom often allege that our agency is a bit dismissive of its bus service, preferring rail as a means of attracting “choice” riders. That said, Honolulu is considering a metro service along the SE coast; no word if it will be called TheTrain. :) (In a theme familiar to Portland riders, there’s a proposal to divert funds from TheBus to help construct the rail line, which has a $5 billion price tag).

TriMet is a bit of a “faceless” agency, in that no particular public figure is singularly identified with TriMet. As the unquestioned political architect of TheBus, however, Uncle Frank has long been identified with the service, which is commonly known as “Uncle Frank’s Limo Service” among natives. (Our last mayor named Frank, unfortunately, was not a friend of transit). Frank Fasi’s death seems to have gone mostly unnoticed on the mainland, including on transit blogs; which is unfortunate–under his leadership, one of the best small-city transit systems in the nation has been built.

So, a fond aloha to Uncle Frank, as you journey to wherever the bus carries you.

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