As I See It: Something has to be done, soon

The tourists are back, so is the traffic. It seems worse than ever. One contributor is that many destinations are not open; people have to drive further to meet their needs. While a lot of necessary improvements were made during the respite, no progress was made on the big one: Lako Blocko, which was covered in this column on June 1, 2019. The queues on Highway 11 and 19 (also known as Hawaii Belt Road, Kuakini Highway, Queen Kaahumanu Highway) back up for 2 miles or more. To get past the Lako Street intersection should take no more than 5 minutes, but 20 is more realistic and I have heard of an hour. The state Department of Transportation is promising to do something, someday, maybe. The existing intersection is overwhelmed several hours each day, it simply cannot handle the volume. This can only get worse, something has to be done, soon.

There are a few options, but only one good one.

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Some think the answer is improved signals, but frankly if a 2-minute green phase out of 2.5-minute cycle is not handling the flow on Highway 11 it’s hard to see how they can improve it much. The only way to give north-south more time is to take it from Lako Street east-west or the left turn lanes. Those are backed up too.

More lanes, would be the obvious solution, but it’s state DOT territory. Honolulu is still studying whether to study it. If traffic is bad today, imagine adding construction delays for two years. Whatever they do has to conform to exacting federal standards that may not be realistic here. Widening has right-of-way issues too. If we’re lucky, 10 years. If we’re not lucky, never.

Alii Drive could be improved with signals or at some locations roundabouts. This would improve its efficiency, but would add zero lanes, so a 10% improvement would be ambitious. The recreational users prefer less traffic.

Mamalahoa Highway, Highway 180, is a very narrow, two-lane country road through Holualoa Village. It was designed and graded for donkey carts. It is barely adequate for local traffic and overloaded as a scenic drive. It does not connect well to Kailua and has numerous safety issues. Improvement would require land acquisition and encounter a lot of resistance, historical and archaeological issues also. Like Alii, it would add zero lanes.

So called Alii Highway, is the butt of a running joke that it has been studied 19.5 times and still found wanting. If built, it would parallel Alii Drive, two blocks mauka (inland). The main problem is: conflict with graves and other archaeological sites. These are serious and cannot be easily dismissed. However, it has some huge advantages especially that almost all the land has already been acquired. There is a way around the archaeological issues. The design on record tries to please everyone with auxiliary lanes for bikes, pedestrians and even buses. The result is 80 feet to 100 feet wide (eight lanes). This creates drainage problems and more cost. A two-lane country road could be as little as 18 feet wide in places, although 24 feet would be more comfortable. If a critical site is in the middle of the right-of-way and unavoidable, there could be two 15-foot roadways with a center parkway. Recreational users will probably prefer to use Alii Drive near the ocean.

There is more flexibility in building a county road rather than a state highway. It would reduce total traffic by offering more alternatives to eliminate the circuitous routes that are now necessary to get from here to there by way of yonder. Without through traffic, Alii Drive would be friendlier and safer for locals, tourists, joggers, hikers and bikers. Some engineering would have to be abandoned, but the narrower road would be much easier to engineer than the wide one was. The surveys and topographic studies have already been done. A friendlier name would help too. We can leave that to politics.

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The county engineers and managers that built Ane Keohokalole Highway in just one year are clearly capable of building this before DOT figures out how to start widening Hawaii Belt Road, Highway 11.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. Send feedback to obenskik@gmail.com