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.