Trimming traffic: Bill to widen Kuakini Highway passes first committee hearing

  • Traffic backs up near the Kuakini Highway and Lako Street intersection on Tuesday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Traffic backs up near the Kuakini Highway and Lako Street intersection on Tuesday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Kona traffic is a nightmare.

The former is a statement of opinion and not fact, but it’s also one so pervasively held throughout the district that its veneer of subjectivity peels away with each passing day to reveal more and more of an objective truth underneath.


With the Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening project finally complete, freshman Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u) has introduced a measure to ease traffic along another of Kona’s primary thoroughfares — Kuakini Highway.

More precisely, Senate Bill 1517 seeks to relieve the bottleneck where the two highways merge and become a state road by widening the roughly 1.7-mile stretch of Kuakini Highway between the intersections at Lako Street and Kamehameha III Road.

“This was high priority a few years ago until the state (assumed) a different way of prioritizing road projects,” Kanuha said. “So I’m trying to put it back on the list and tell them this is a high priority.”

The federal government altered its priorities toward maintenance and safety of existing roadways rather than the construction of new ones, Kanuha explained. The state followed suit, not wanting to jeopardize current and future federal funding opportunities.

Hawaii considers the work Kanuha is proposing on Kuakini Highway as the construction of a new road because to do so will require the acquisition of right of ways.

Kanuha believes, however, the project proposal to eliminate one of Kona’s most frustrating pinch points can be viewed in multiple ways.

“To me, it’s a safety issue because the amount of traffic that moves through that area,” he said.

Rush hour is a misnomer on Kuakini and Queen Kaahumanu highways because it typically causes traffic jams lasting several consecutive hours in the mornings and the evenings, which often extend from South Kona through the north end of Kailua Village and beyond.

Kanuha said he originally wanted to propose widening the entire corridor from Nani Kailua Drive to Kamehameha III Road.

However, he ultimately felt breaking it up into smaller segments might allow for a more immediate impact to traffic that’s worsened every year as North Kona’s population spiked by almost 4,000 people to nearly 42,000 total between the years of 2010-2016, according to the 2017 State of Hawaii Data Book.

The cost of the project and the most efficient way to widen the Kuakini Highway could prove sticking points as the bill moves through the Senate.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye (D-North Hawaii) chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation. That committee passed SB1517 Monday with an amendment added by Inouye specifying the funding amount for the project at $30 million for the first year and “… thereafter, I guess, continual for the following year.”

The measure now moves to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which decides which bills the Senate approves for funding.

Kanuha said finding a creative way to alleviate the bottleneck is crucial in convincing Ways and Means along with the House Committee on Finance that costs won’t spin out of control.

“We’re trying to look at different scenarios,” Kanuha said. “A four-lane highway or add an additional lane (and make it three-lane highway) instead of the four. That’s because if you do four lanes, there are a lot more properties to buy and the price tag goes from say $30 million to say $100 million very quickly.”

No matter the solution that would allow for state monies to be procured, Kanuha said federal funding would be both applicable and necessary for completion of the widening project.

As for how long such an endeavor might take once approved, Kanuha declined comment citing all the variables that could facilitate or slow down construction.

However, the last time Kuakini Highway was widened it was a county project that extended half of a mile from the Palani Road intersection to the Hualalai Road intersection.

Barett Otani, spokesperson for the county Department of Public Works, wrote in an email that the notice to proceed on that project was issued in November 2004. Construction wrapped up in November 2007. Delays that occurred were caused by utility relocation, he explained.


The total cost to widen the half mile stretch of highway to four-lanes was just shy of $15 million. Initial projections had it costing a little more than $12.5 million. Most of the extra incurred cost was caused by the delays, Otani said.

That project was funded to the tune of 20 percent by county funds, mostly procured through the sale of bonds, while the Federal Highway Administration picked up 80 percent of the tab.

  1. KonaDude February 13, 2019 3:59 am

    This should be fun. Won’t this just push the bottleneck down the road further, then what? What about Henry st to Lako? (.Y.)

  2. Billy Batts February 13, 2019 5:39 am

    Breaking it up into segments is a smart move. From Lako Street to King Kam III is the part that would cost the most. Henry to Lako doesn’t look like it would require land acquisition. Who am I kidding, by the time they get the construction going I’ll probably be long gone.

  3. briala February 13, 2019 6:44 am

    I feel like the Lako intersection specifically is the big bottleneck. You don’t need the entire stretch to be 4 lanes; you just need a way to accommodate all the cars that want to get past that one darn light. Right now that light is not green for enough minutes in an hour to get all the cars through. Making just that one intersection 4 lanes would do it (because it would double the number of cars passed per green light), but maybe they could get some improvement really affordably just by optimizing how that light works?

    1. onceawarrior February 13, 2019 11:26 am

      You have identified a critical troublesome intersection.
      Lack of forethought by the traffic infrastructure planners led to the dysfunction of Lako intersection.
      Too bad the 1998 Long Range Plan for the sub region of Kailua Kona and vicinity has been dormant. That master vision could be modified to suit incremental implementation of other needed locations.

    2. numbah10 February 13, 2019 11:27 am

      Lako at least has reasonable timing to allow north-south traffic to move.

      Nani Kailua is a sick joke, light changing constantly for cross traffic. Look at the half mile plus backup of cars heading south every afternoon.

      One or two cars waiting on Nani Kailu can stop dozens of cars on a major road.

      That timing has been a bottleneck for far too long. People create worse traffic by heading down Henry to avoid the miserable intersection during rush hour.

      Then you have a jam up on Henry that takes many light changes to clear.

      Is there any reason Nani Kailua should not have timing more like Honokohau where one or two cars does not repeatedly stop all traffic?

  4. Don Lupien February 13, 2019 6:53 am

    This project should take about 40 or 50-yeatrs to complete. This is based on pasr experience of Kona road wideroing.

  5. 4whatitsworth February 13, 2019 8:57 am

    It is great to see Kanuha going to bat for Kona and pushing for investments where they pay off. This is a no brainier. It can take 30 minutes to get from Kam III to town. If you work you are stuck in the morning “Kona Crawl” polluting the atmosphere, wearing out your car and your love for Hawaii. The problem is that it is only going to get worse because affordable housing is south.

    What I disagree with is that we should do this right two lanes all the way to Nani Kailua otherwise it is just going to be another problem to solve in 5 years.

    1. Bone Crusher February 13, 2019 12:06 pm

      Agreed, two lanes in each direction, all the way. A good example is the Queen K section that was just completed. Made a huge difference. Before that it must bottle necked a mile further down the road.

    2. Buds4All February 13, 2019 6:33 pm

      Don’t worry Cortez is going to take your car away!

  6. LimeyinHi February 13, 2019 9:00 am

    What about the Alii bypass road? That has been in the planning department for forty years, millions spent in planning and not one rock moved. Connect that to the useless road from Napoopoo intersection to Keahou, problem solved, as it was originally intended.

    1. Chickie Galore February 13, 2019 9:15 am

      Exactly…did not see your comment before I made mine. Why don’t they do what is already scheduled?

    2. 4whatitsworth February 13, 2019 11:05 am

      Yes that would be the right course of action however there would be to much resistance from the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) people.

    3. Aaron Stene February 13, 2019 5:27 pm

      I assume you’re referring to the Mamalahoa Highway (Hokulia) bypass as the useless road?
      The latter is NOT a useless road. It has improved the traffic flow between Kainaliu and Captain Cook, and radically improved a previously dangerous intersection at Napoopoo. If the last 2.07 miles of this road wasn’t constructed, the traffic issues would be worse.

      As far as constructing Alii Bypass, the county has tried several times to construct this highway. However, archaeological issues have proven too tough to overcome. This after the county has spent millions since the 1960s to construct this highway. The NIMBY faction is too strong.

      1. LimeyinHi February 14, 2019 8:46 am

        They have done nothing except spend millions and millions of dollars planning. And yes, the rest of the road is useless without the Alii bypass to connect to. As for archaeological issues, there are none, a few unnamed graves and sites that are ignored by everyone. Is that what is holding it up? Do you think graves would hold up such a development in Honolulu? Since when do the dead hold up the progress of the living. Forty years Aaron, in the planning department. The corridor is so narrow that a child could design it…for archaeological reasons, give me a break. If the planning department was really working for the benefit of the ‘Kona side’ we would not be in the position we are now. Look at the nice roads in Hilo, look at the pot holes in Kona. Seventeen years ago, at a party, the then head of the planning department bragged that he had not been to the Kona side for over ten years. Now we have gridlock. Archaeological reasons?? Show us some archaeology, and don’t say City of Refuge because that is all there is, except the odd piles of unrestored rocks, overgrown and neglected.

        1. Aaron Stene February 14, 2019 8:58 am

          Please look up what is Section 106 consultation process, or acronyms such
          as ACHP. Burial sites have to protected according to Federal law, especially when FHWA funding is involved. The latter is why it took so long to complete the Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening. These laws is why the Alii Parkway hasn’t been built.

          I find your comment that Hilo has all these great roads. I don’t know where they are, as there is a lot of poorly maintained county and state roads on BOTH sides of the island. The Kona side has actually had a lot of new roads constructed over the last six years more so than the Hilo side.

  7. Chickie Galore February 13, 2019 9:14 am

    Finish the bypass road and then it would end that problem as well as the next…

  8. Greg Olsen February 13, 2019 11:50 am

    It’s about time the state looks at the K3 to Lako intersection. And just in time, too. The new development of Kona Village (between Lako and Puapuaanui) will bring 450 housing units which could mean up to another 1000 car-trips per day. Currently, the Kona Village proposal plans to use Lako up to Kekuanaoa and then north through Kona Vistas to the site. Eventually, the plan calls for an additional extension of Leilani north from Lako. Both of these new extensions of roads are envisioned as connecting onto Puapuaanui through Palani Estates. If this proposal gets built, we’ll have far more gridlock than we do today. And all neighborhood streets, from Sunset Drive in the south to Puapuaanui in the north will bear traffic cutting through neighborhoods as drives seek alternative routes north in the am and south in the pm.

    Our county needs to take a long-term look at where planners are approving new development to ensure the current infrastructure can handle what is yet to come!

  9. shirl February 13, 2019 12:03 pm

    Adding 450 Units (Kona Village Project) is not helpful to our Traffic
    conjestion, Filling up our trash dumps and draining our already out of date water wells. What is wrong with this picture of Kona.

  10. paul February 13, 2019 5:57 pm

    bluntly…piss poor planning by localincompetent government..same with homelessness problem…they will not deal with it until its to late…don’t have the _ _ _ _s to make tough decesions

  11. Buds4All February 13, 2019 6:40 pm

    We should look into getting a train?

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