Friday, February 2, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, February 2, 2001

'Frightening' traffic mars Maui

Charts: Motor vehicles registered between 1989 and 1999

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — Having enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a Maalaea restaurant, William Newsom got into his rental car and headed back to his Wailea hotel.

Traffic backs up as it approaches Wailuku on a recent afternoon. Maui's population growth and popularity with tourists have choked its roads with cars.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

The drive, which cuts through the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge and along a stretch of beach, was anything but pleasant. It took Newsom an agonizing hour and a half to travel a distance of about 10 miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"To me it was like L.A.," fumed Newsom, a retired California appeals court judge who is part of the hui that recently bought Hana Ranch. "I don't know where it ends. It's frightening. I think I could have driven to Hana in the time it took to get to my hotel.''

Newsom isn't the only one unhappy about the driving experience on Maui. Residents and visitors alike are getting stuck in traffic jams, running late for appointments and airline flights, and spending too much time creeping along in their vehicles, staring at the bumper in front of them.

Maui's growing population and its popularity as a visitor destination are conspiring to create a glut of vehicles that is choking the island's two-lane highways. It’s not unusual for a simple fender-bender or highway construction job to create a major traffic backup.

Statistics from the state Transportation Department show that Maui County experienced the highest rate of growth in Hawaii in the number of registered vehicles and licensed drivers from 1989 to 1999.

During the 10-year period, the number of registered vehicles rose 20 percent, to 125,404 cars, trucks and motorcycles. An estimated 15 percent of those vehicles are rentals. By comparison, Honolulu experienced a slight decrease in the number of registered vehicles during that same period.

Meanwhile, the number of licensed drivers in Maui County increased 16 percent — 87,550 — compared with only 4 percent on Oahu.

Maui political leaders acknowledge that traffic congestion has motored near to the top of Maui's list of problems.

Looking for help

Mayor James "Kimo" Apana took his concerns about traffic congestion to acting state transportation director Brian Minaai earlier in the month. Apana also asked for help dealing with the situation in a recent speech to the state Legislature. In addition, the mayor announced the formation of two citizen committees to address the issue.

Members of the Maui County Council, meanwhile, say they plan to tackle the traffic problem in the coming months and are lobbying state lawmakers for relief.

While the problem may not have reached the gridlock proportions of Honolulu or other urban areas across the nation, it certainly is enough to worry officials who pride themselves in being stewards of a famous vacation getaway.

For the first time last year, an annual survey of visitors made traffic the top complaint. Second on the list was the long lines at rental car agencies.

A December travel piece in The New York Times described Maui as "paradise with traffic jams’’ and began with a description of being stuck in a 4 1/2-hour tie-up. Even though the article went on to say 2.5 million tourists come each year despite the traffic, the image isn't exactly the one Maui's travel industry is trying to promote.

Satisfying tourists

Marsha Wienert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said the agency's board of directors is pushing for county and state officials to do something about the traffic.

"Our goal is not only to bring the tourists here but also to make sure their stay here is satisfactory,’’ Wienert said.

Maui’s traffic congestion worsens during the peak tourist seasons, when the county’s resident population of 122,000 swells by more than 40,000, and visitors are renting thousands of cars to roam the island.

Residents who live near or work in the resort areas of South Maui and West Maui are particularly affected.

"When I drive home from work, it’s awful. It’s gotten so bad,’’ said Lynn Solu, who travels from her home in Haik¬ on Maui’s north shore to her job at Kihei Rent A Car in South Maui, a distance of about 20 miles.

Solu is a member of the family that owns the small rental car company, and she hears complaints all the time. She said the company has a fleet of 200 vehicles and refuses to add more cars, even though the demand is there.

"We have to live on this island, too,’’ she said.

South Maui Realtor Mark Sheehan blamed the traffic for losing a recent sale of a multimillion-dollar house in Makena. The buyer was a computer industry big shot who was looking at properties in the $7 million to $13 million range.

"He liked what he saw, but he said he couldn’t handle the traffic. He said he was going to go look in the Virgin Islands. That’s like waving goodbye to a $200,000 commission,’’ he said.

"The problem is we have plantation-era roads and 21st century traffic,’’ said Sheehan, who is also president of Maui Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that advocates controlled growth. "We have clogged arteries, and we're on the verge of having a heart attack.’’

State roads worst

Much of the congestion is found on state roads, such as the Haleakala, Mokulele, Honoapiilani and Piilani highways. While some major improvements are expected to get under way in the next year or two, other projects are being held back because of approval hurdles, lack of funding and competing projects on other islands.

Bob Siarot, the state's chief highways engineer on Maui, acknowledged that the state hasn't kept up with the volume of traffic. But, he said, the community must share some of the blame. He said millions of dollars in state and federal money for major road improvements have been lost over the years after community complaints sent projects back to the drawing boards.

Four years ago, for example, there was money to widen the Haleakala Highway from three lanes to four, he said, but opposition to a proposal to separate opposing traffic lanes with concrete barriers resulted in a project setback. What’s more, plans to widen the two-lane Mokulele Highway have been in the works for the better part of a decade, but community concerns over the design slowed the project.

The news isn’t all bad. Siarot said he expects two or three major Maui highway projects to get under way in the next year or so, including the $23 million first phase of the Mokulele project and the first phase of a $40 million plan to widen Honoapiilani Highway near Maalaea and upgrade its intersection with North Kihei Road.

Apana said he stands ready to offer the state whatever help it needs to speed up road construction, including meeting with landowners regarding acquisition of right-of-way lands.

Apana added that the county has done more than enough research about the problem over the years and now it’s time for action.

"We have studied this subject to death. I have a pile of studies two feet high saying we need to do something. Let’s do something,’’ he said.

Panels study problem

The mayor is forming a Transportation Action Committee to identify immediate solutions. Another committee will revisit the work done in 1992 by a county-sponsored group called Transportation Alternatives Maui. The panel will look at the feasibility of the original recommendations.

Traffic engineer Phillip Rowell has a recommendation of his own: require that development plans include more comprehensive traffic studies, as many localities on the Mainland do. He said too many studies here are narrowly focused on turn lanes into the project, for example, without regard to the bigger traffic picture.

Rowell, an Oahu-based engineer who works statewide, said a good sign is that several Maui clients recently have commissioned studies to assess traffic impacts on a larger scale.

"You find out where the problems are, and you’re a lot more informed when another project comes down the road. You have the information about where the problems are going to be and you can take the appropriate action,’’ he said.

Councilwoman Charmaine Tavares said it’s time county lawmakers examined proposed residential and commercial developments with even more scrutiny than in the past, especially in regard to traffic impacts.

"To do otherwise would be irresponsible,’’ agreed Councilman Robert Carroll.

But Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson wants to go a step further. She wants her colleagues to consider some type of moratorium on development while a carrying-capacity study is funded to look at just how many people the island can hold with its current infrastructure and water resources. Her hunch is Maui has exceeded its capacity.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we’ve already overdeveloped this place,’’ Johnson said. "It’s a matter of the quality of life for both the visitors and the local people. If we don’t do something about this, I can’t see anything but disaster looming ahead.’’

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