Hokianga residents are being urged to make use of a new bus service to Kaikohe to make sure it survives beyond a 15-week trial.
The minibus made its inaugural trip from Omapere on Tuesday, with locals and council staff armed with balloons, whistles and even a vuvuzela putting on a noisy welcome for the first passengers.
The bus will leave at 9.30am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, picking up passengers anywhere on the route and detouring to Rawene to connect with the ferry if required, before starting its return trip at 1.30pm.
It is at least 10 years since Hokianga had any form of public transport.
Among the first passengers on Tuesday was 86-year-old Betty Pennell of Omapere, who used to travel to Kaikohe twice a week until a stroke stopped her driving.
Tuesday was the first time in two years she had been able to come to town independently.
"This has given me my independence back. We have no supermarket, no bank, no taxis and, until now, no buses. This will be great, especially for the elderly," she said.
The new service has been driven by the Opononi-Omapere Ratepayers' Association with $15,000 in funding from the Northland Regional Council, enough to keep it going for a 15-week trial.
Regional councillor Joe Carr said it was important Hokianga residents made use of the service.
If passenger numbers were still good by May-June, when councillors were due to consider their next annual plan, the case for ongoing funding would be strengthened.
The service is provided by Hokianga Express under contract to the regional council. Fares are $20 return or $15 one way.
The first passengers were treated to morning tea on their arrival at Kaikohe's Memorial Hall. In future the drop-off point will be on Mangakahia Rd.
Fair go needed: Councillor
A regional councillor is calling for a fair go for public transport in Northland.
The government, via the NZ Transport Agency, provides subsidies to make public transport viable - but only if the service meets criteria such as reducing urban congestion. That means the only public transport in Northland eligible for government help is in Whangarei.
Kaitaia's Busabout service and the new Hokianga-Kaikohe service get no government assistance because they operate in rural areas. The same would be true for a Mid North bus service linking Kaikohe, Ohaeawai, Moerewa, Kawakawa, Paihia, Kerikeri, Waipapa and Okaihau, which is proposed in the Northland Regional Council's draft Annual Plan.
Regional councillor Joe Carr said passenger services in Auckland received NZTA subsidies of $198 per person per year. The same figure for Northland was $4.90 per person per year, all of which was spent in Whangarei.
"A bit of equity would be nice. We'd love to get some government funding but we just can't get any," he said.
Mr Carr is contesting the upcoming Northland by-election for the Focus NZ party.