The state Department of Transportation wants to further improve safety and mobility along Highway 130 between Keaau and Pahoa by using capital improvement funding recently allocated by lawmakers.
The capital improvement budget, which is now before Gov. David Ige for consideration, included $30 million to widen Keaau-Pahoa Road, or Highway 130, from two lanes to four lanes.
The DOT, however, said the money can be used for safety improvements. Department spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said the allocated CIP funds will instead be used for lighting improvements and construction of roundabouts at the Makuu Drive and Orchidland Drive intersections with Keaau-Pahoa Road, a splitter island, and asphalt shoulders.
Work also calls for the construction of bus pullouts to improve mobility.
Ed Sniffen, deputy director of transportation, Highways Division, said when the DOT began working with the community in 2007, a Keaau-Pahoa working group was created and began identifying needs of the community.
Keaau and Pahoa were targeted because of the area’s high growth rate and high accident rates at four of the 10 intersections along the Highway 130 corridor, he said. Wanting to address both capacity issues and safety, several projects were identified, including widening the entire stretch of roadway and safety improvements at intersections.
According to Sniffen, the $30 million CIP appropriation is to be funded with money from a rental car surcharge.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, rental car revenue is zero, and while the department has the appropriation, the funding may not actually be available, he said.
The DOT also is seeking $12 million in discretionary federal funding for the proposed improvements.
Kunishige said those funds can only be used for construction, so state money would still be needed for design. However, the $30 million CIP allocation would go toward both design and construction if the DOT does not receive the federal grant.
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, of Puna, however, said lawmakers made sure to include shovel-ready projects in the recently-approved CIP budget.
The idea, she said, was to inject funds into the economy to prevent a “deeper recession than will likely happen” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“I understand HDOT money usually comes from … gas taxes and surcharges, but my understanding is there should be money available for these, otherwise we wouldn’t have passed the budget.”
Sniffen said timeline for the proposed roundabout work and other safety improvements will depend on funding availability, but improvements to Highway 130 is the DOT’s top priority for the Big Island.
In 2018, plans to widen the road, portions of which can see an average of 22,000 cars per day, fell through due to a lack of funding.
Don Smith, who was the DOT’s Hawaii Island district engineer at the time, proposed instead the installation of three new roundabouts at Orchidland Drive, Makuu Drive and Ainaloa Boulevard.
Work currently is underway to build the Ainaloa roundabout.
In January, the DOT awarded a contract to general contractor Jas W. Glover to make improvements to the intersection of Keaau-Pahoa Road and Ainaloa Boulevard, which primarily consist of a compact roundabout managing the intersection of the two roads, as well as related signage and traffic-management infrastructure.
A project summary on the DOT website states that the notice to proceed on the project was issued March 2 and that so far the project is about one-quarter complete.
Kunishige said the intersection work is going well, and while there have been no delays due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a few days have been lost to weather delays and there has been a longer delay to account for a waterline relocation.
This project is expected to be completed in January 2021.
According to Kunishige, roundabouts reduce traffic fatalities and injuries and the overall occurrence of crashes by eliminating crossing conflicts and moving vehicles through the intersection and a slower but steady speed.
Since the roundabout at the Pahoa bypass intersection opened in 2016, Kunishige said the number of accidents — at what was once the highest crash-rated intersection in Hawaii — have declined by 95%.