Daniel K. Inouye Highway extension project progressing despite lack of funding

  • The terminus of Daniel K. Inouye Highway in South Kohala is seen last month. The $90 million project’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) is progressing toward completion, nearly four years after the draft version was released in 2017 for public review, according to the state Department of Transportation. (Photos by Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • The terminus of Daniel K. Inouye Highway in South Kohala is seen last month. The $90 million project’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) is progressing toward completion, nearly four years after the draft version was released in 2017 for public review, according to the state Department of Transportation. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

A record of decision marking the completion of the environmental review process for the long-delayed extension of Daniel K. Inouye Highway is expected this fall.

The $90 million project’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) is progressing toward completion, nearly four years after the draft version was released in 2017 for public review, according to the state Department of Transportation. The state expects to begin moving into the rights of way acquisition phase later this year, but beyond that, the timeline is foggy.

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“We cannot provide a schedule for project construction as we have not identified a funding source for the project,” said Shelly Kunishige, DOT spokeswoman.

The project will extend the cross-island route, known colloquially as Saddle Road, from its current terminus at Mamalahoa Highway near the South Kohala-North Kona boundary to Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The approximately 10.5-mile extension is expected to take about two years to construct once work is underway.

Kunishige said that the Section 106 (historic preservation) process is nearing completion with consultation with Native Hawaiian organizations and other stakeholders regarding the historic resources expected to be wrapped up this month. Once the consultation is finished, a memorandum of agreement will be drafted for final approval by the Federal Highways Administration.

However, that’s likely not the last step to clearing the hurdle to the final EIS, because, based on preliminary findings, it is likely that a Section 4(f) Determination is needed for final approval. Section 4(f) approval is required for the use of federal funds for a project if there is a use of a historic site, park, recreational area or refuge when a “prudent and feasible avoidance alternative is available,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The project was put “on hold” last fall after state funding sources dried up and the extension effort was not awarded a federal grant. The state had hoped to draw money from the rental car surcharge fund for the project, but without tourism, the account has seen little revenue.

“We will continue to submit the Saddle Road Extension project for consideration in federal discretionary grant opportunities,” Kunishige said.

House Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) has included in her capital improvement budget projects bill for the district $89 million, of which $87 million is designated for construction.

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Saddle Road, most of which was renamed Daniel K. Inouye Highway post-modernization and western realignment in 2013, was originally built in 1942 as a one-lane road to connect military training facilities. The effort to extend the road from its terminus at Mamalahoa Highway to the Big Island’s leeward coast dates to 1999, though it was shelved until 2011 when the state resumed the EIS process.

To date, 48 miles between Hilo and its terminus a few miles south of Mamalahoa Highway’s intersection with Waikoloa Road have been modernized or realigned. As of October 2017, state and federal agencies reported having spent $316.5 million on the project.