By Professor Ken Schoolland

With so much attention on plans for a city railroad, it’s worth taking stock of the government strangulation of transportation over the past 70 years.

Few people today know what jitneys are, but there used to be lots of jitneys and the people of Honolulu loved them. That is, until 1940 when the government put them all out of business. In a free market, jitneys travel major traffic routes and pick up and drop off customers all along the way. They don’t have fixed routes or schedules, so they can gather up customers during the rush hour and can take them door-to-door if they choose. The service fits neatly between that of buses and taxis.

In May of 1940, the government wasn’t so appreciative of jitneys. The Public Utilities Commission thought competition wasn’t a good thing for Honolulu. So they outlawed competition and gave a monopoly to Hawaii Rapid Transit (HRT). The Rosecrans bus company and four independent Kaimuki jitney companies were ordered to cease and desist.

There was a perfunctory hearing. Defenders of the Rosecrans bus company and the jitney companies packed the courtroom in order to protest the government plan to shut them down. But the officials had made up their minds.

Said one reporter, “The meeting was punctuated by sarcasm, snappy repartee, and dominated by bus patrons who rushed to the defense of the Rosecrans company praising that service, the courtesy of the drivers, and insisting upon Mr. Rosecrans’ right to do business as a rival to the long established street railway service….Rosecrans service was needed not only for competition, but because of late running hours and better service on routes the HRT did not parallel.”

But the HRT, the dominant bus company at the time, couldn’t take the competition. The general manager of the HRT commented, “…I still claim that the Rosecrans Jitneys are a thorn in our side and a leak in our pocketbook.”

A Star-Bulletin editorial said, “In ruling the ‘jitney buses’ off Honolulu streets, the territorial public utilities commission has taken on an inescapable responsibility for the future of street transportation in this city. The commission’s ruling late Monday establishes a monopoly in the bus business in Honolulu.”

The government grant of a monopoly cost the people of Honolulu almost 70 years of competitive innovation in service, cost reduction, and efficiency. Citizens are now saddled with crippling taxpayer subsidies of an inefficient service and, in 2003, no service at all during The Bus strike.

Perhaps some of those fine officials from the public utilities commission of 1940 will now step forward to accept that “inescapable responsibility”? No, instead politicians will tax us billions of dollars while building a mammoth railroad boondoggle.