Work to reopen all parts of Highway 137 that were covered by lava in 2018 will begin next year.
Ikaika Rodenhurst, director of the county Department of Public Works, confirmed that plans are being drafted to reopen all of the highway — from the “Four Corners” intersection to Pohoiki Road, and another stretch at the MacKenzie State Recreation Area — after it was buried under lava by the Kilauea eruption, but the expansion of the project has led to a few months of delays.
Last year, under the previous county administration, the Highway 137 project was slated to restore a length of the highway from the Four Corners intersection to Kapoho Kai Drive, along with a 700-foot stretch of Lighthouse Road.
But during a February County Council committee hearing, Rodenhurst said the county was exploring potential plans to reopen the entire length of the highway, which the county has since committed to, he confirmed Wednesday.
“We wanted to provide better circulation for people in the community,” Rodenhurst said, explaining that the loop created by reopening Highway 137 and Pohoiki Road will vastly improve livability and drivability in the area.
The expanded plans come with an expanded price tag, but Rodenhurst said “they have been budgeted for.”
The county will cover 25% of the project costs, with the rest provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will reimburse the county up to $61 million.
“The money’s been allocated. That doesn’t change,” Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said. “The question is just how much money will be left for other projects when that’s done.”
Rodenhurst has identified other roads in the area such as Hinalo Street, Honualula Street and Leilani Avenue as possible recovery projects after the high-priority roads are restored.
State Rep. Greggor Ilagan, who represents Puna, said reopening more roads in the area is imperative, given that there is only one major artery through the area.
Ilagan praised the current administration for pushing the Highway 137 project beyond its original scope.
“The previous administration clearly didn’t support this project, even though the people of Puna have always been supportive of this,” Ilagan said. “But, from what I can tell, the current administration is definitely more supportive.”
The expanded scope of the project has pushed back its start date, however.
At February’s committee hearing, Rodenhurst said the Highway 137 plans would be completed by the end of April. With that date having come and gone, Rodenhurst said he now hopes those plans will be completed and submitted to FEMA in July.
Assuming FEMA completes its assessments on time, Rodenhurst said construction on Highway 137 could begin by May 2022, a few months later than the previous target date of March 2022.
Kierkiewicz said she had expected a delay, because the previous project timeline seemed “aggressive.” However, she was pleased that the county now has a firm commitment to reopen the entirety of Highway 137.
“Before we had this commitment, everything was in limbo. But now, clearly, we can put the pedal to the metal on this,” Kierkiewicz said.
Because FEMA is providing funding for these projects, all project plans must receive FEMA approval before construction can begin, which is why, three years after the eruption, these projects remain incomplete.
“We hope it could be done sooner, but it all depends on FEMA,” Rodenhurst said, adding that the county is working to get its side of the planning process done as quickly as possible in the hope of expediting FEMA’s process.
Deb Smith, who still owns one of the last surviving homes in Kapoho, said the new plan to reopen the entirety of the highway will be good for the area in the long run, because the previous plan would have created a dead end that would likely attract criminal behavior. However, she said she is frustrated by the slow pace of recovery in the area.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Smith said. “If they start doing work next year, then when do we get to start working on our subdivision? It’s been three years (since the eruption) already, and now it’s looking like it’ll be more than five years before we can go back home.”
Smith pointed out that work to restore Highway 132 was completed more than a year ago, and nothing has happened since.
Rodenhurst said there currently are no delays to reopen the stretch of Pohoiki Road that was inundated by lava. FEMA is expected to approve those plans in June, which means construction could begin by September.
Meanwhile, a plan to realign a lower section of Pohoiki is in the works and will to be completed after Highway 137. That plan will reconfigure the road away from several old-growth mango trees, which Rodenhurst emphasized will not be damaged or otherwise impacted by the project.
Currently, a stretch of Government Beach Road north of Four Corners also is being resurfaced, but Rodenhurst said that project is unrelated to any road recovery project and is not FEMA-funded.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.