KAILUA-KONA — Lawmakers Wednesday signed off on $69 million to construct a permanent federal inspection station at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.
The allocation, included in the $14.4 billion state budget bill that now awaits Gov. David Ige’s signature, will cover construction of the inspection station where passengers and baggage from foreign countries can be screened as well as an additional holdroom building and ground transportation and covered waiting area, said state Department of Transportation Spokesman Tim Sakahara.
The facility was previously estimated to cost $50 million, however, the addition of the holdroom building and waiting area increased the price, he said.
“The $69 million approved by the Legislature ensures a robust economy for the Big Island. We made a commitment to the Customs and Border Patrol that we would complete the permanent Federal Inspection Station by Dec. 2021, and this funding ensures that we will be able to fulfill that promise. The facility will continue to positively impact the Big Island’s economy with international visitors spending more than $84 million a year,” Gov. David Ige said in a statement.
Sakahara said the state expects to solicit bids for the project as early as next month, and, should everything go as planned, construction could commence in early 2019.
The work is expected to take 18 months, which means the project should be complete by late summer 2020, more than a year ahead of the December 2021 deadline agreed upon by the state and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he said.
“It’s huge, it’s a step that the state is making to ensure we have a legitimate second entry into the state from a safety and security standpoint,” Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said of the funding’s allocation.
That December 2016 agreement allowed the airport to continue using for up to five years the white tent currently housing the Federal Inspection Station, allowing for the resumption of international direct flights to the airport.
Those direct Japan-to-Kona flights offered by two different airlines accounted for about 9 percent, or about 8,900, of the 100,340 seats arriving in February at Kona International Airport, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. That month, HTA said each Japanese visitor spent an average of $273 per day.
Flights from Canada clear customs before departing the country. No other international flights currently service Kona International Airport.
Until the agreement in December 2016, customs and immigration officials hadn’t been stationed at the airport’s international tent since Japan Airlines stopped flying to Kona in 2010. A temporary practice of having charter flights reimburse Customs for flying agents from Honolulu to Kona to staff the customs gateway there was ended in 2012.
Customs first opened the temporary facility within the tent at Kona International Airport in 1995 to allow for the Japan Airlines flight that commenced in June 1996.