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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 17, 2002

Tracking H-1's path of progress

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Fifty years ago this summer, construction began on Honolulu's first expressway. Ultimately it changed just about every facet of Hawai'i life.

H-1 Freeway was an attempt to alleviate the congestion and frustration caused by a growing number of automobiles.

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 24, 1967

"The development of the highway was symbolic of the entire transformation of O'ahu," said Tom Dinell, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Hawai'i. "I don't think anyone back then really could have foreseen how far those changes would take us."

The first highway, a three-fifths of a mile stretch known then as Mauka Arterial, later as Lunalilo Freeway and now H-1 Freeway, was designed to let drivers move swiftly from lower Kaimuki to Isenberg Street. It opened in 1953 and kept expanding for decades.

The need for highways was just one aspect of a rapidly changing O'ahu society in the early 1950s, Dinell said. Other forces included a rapid increase in the number of cars, the expansion of housing and population, and the shrinking of agricultural lands. Then, too, there was the huge increase in the number of tourists, made possible by airplane travel.

"The development of our highway system went hand-in-hand with all those other factors," he said. "They were a series of multifaceted, interlocking events that changed everything."

At first though, the Mauka Arterial was much like every O'ahu roadway built before or since, a simple engineering attempt to alleviate congestion and the frustration caused by an ever-increasing number of automobiles on the island.

The idea of a highway had been raised as early as 1937.

"A super highway through Honolulu, 120 feet wide and running mauka of the business district from Kalihi to Kaimuki ... would be invaluable in solving Honolulu's pressing traffic problem," engineer John Rush told the City Council in 1939.

It wasn't until after World War II and a sudden increase in complaints about congestion that city officials got serious about the plan, proposing to spend $30 million over 15 years to build a six-lane expressway in 11 stages that would extend from Old Wai'alae Road to Middle Street, about seven miles.

Work began on the first stage in the summer of 1952. When the roadway opened the following year, Honolulu was irrevocably changed, said Fujio "Fudge" Matsuda, a former state transportation director.

Beginning of progress

Birth of a freeway

July 1937 — Honolulu Mayor George F. Wright first proposes an "arterial highway" from Wai'alae Avenue to Dillingham Boulevard.

August 1952 — Construction begins on the first stretch, from Old Wai'alae Road to Isenberg Street, to be known as "Mauka Arterial."

Nov. 9, 1953 — First section opens. The highway's first accident on Jan. 7, 1954: A car hits a barrier and tips over. No one is hurt.

March 1955-Sept. 1960 — Highway extended in stages to Middle Street area. In July 1955, Mauka Arterial is renamed Lunalilo Freeway.

March 1965 — Lunalilo Freeway is designated H-1; decision made to extend road to 27.2 miles, from Wai'alae to Palailai near Barbers Point.

January 1967-1986 — Highway gradually extended from Middle Street to Barbers Point. In June 1986, H-1 is declared finished.

With the opening of the first highway, Honolulu was no longer just a series of communities, served by neighborhood stores and isolated in individual valleys. The time-saving offered by the highway suddenly allowed a person to live in Kaimuki, work in downtown Honolulu and shop in Kalihi. Others could suddenly dream of escaping from a crowded Honolulu apartment to a place of their own in the "country," places as far away as Moanalua or even Hawai'i Kai, Matsuda said.

"Most people thought of it as progress," he said.

Progress, in those days, meant separating the workplace from the residence and shopping areas, replacing the old urban Honolulu with a new suburban one in which people could have big homes and bigger lawns, Matsuda said. Schools, offices, shops and everything else in life could exist somewhere else — as long as people could drive to them quickly, he said.

"It worked well for a while until everyone got stuck in traffic," Matsuda said.

From 1952 to 1962, Honolulu officials kept adding to the Mauka Arterial, described as the first road in the state "tailored to the flight patterns of people." (A companion Makai Arterial that would have run past Waikiki, down Ala Moana and along an elevated roadway near the Honolulu waterfront never materialized as planned.)

When the first leg opened in 1953, it was hailed "as the highest standards of highway construction yet seen in the islands. Over-and underpasses keep cross-traffic to a minimum. A six-foot fence on both sides bars pedestrians and pets," according to news reports.

The freeways brought growing pains to parts of old Honolulu, too.

Problems pop up

Before the work began, there were protests from property owners and businessmen who felt the highway was inappropriate. Parishioners fought to save the Church of the Crossroads on University Avenue, which was directly in the path of the highway. They managed to save most of the church, which today is surrounded by the freeway and on-ramps. A Buddhist temple on Old Wai'alae Road wasn't so lucky; it had to move to Palolo Valley.

Construction forced the condemnation of more than 500 homes and the moving of several thousand people, tearing old neighborhoods apart. In Kaimuki, for instance, that meant razing the entire block of homes between Harding and Pahoa Avenues for the below street-level freeway. ("More blemishes are disappearing from the face of Honolulu as workmen tear down ancient, termite-ridden buildings and prepare to heal the wounds with construction of another segment of the ultra-modern Lunalilo Freeway," said one 1959 editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser.)

Businessmen feared they would literally be bypassed by highway traffic and left to face slow decline, but in many cases, the freeways helped many local neighborhoods and businesses.

"A lot of people were short-sighted and worried at first," added Ralph Nakamura, whose family ran the Nakamura Brothers service station in Mo'ili'ili for 65 years. "But then you got to see the bigger picture and saw everything was going to be all right. Everything had a way of balancing out."

The freeways let old neighborhoods like Mo'ili'ili and Kaimuki start to attract new customers from other parts of the island. The new access helped spur enrollment at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. The highways also brought new housing apartment and housing developments along some local streets that were now less crowded than before. Business actually got better in some places.

"Now everyone could come and go when and where they want," Nakamura said. "People can live in Kapolei but still come back to Mo'ili'ili to shop in the old neighborhood. It's the anchor. The freeway is what makes that possible."

A push for growth

Cars lined the on-ramp at Old Wai'alae Road when the first stretch of the "Mauka Arterial" opened.

Advertiser library photo • Nov. 9, 1953

As it continued to expand in both directions, thousands of homes sprouted on hillsides and valleys where none had been before. Shopping centers were developed to service them. The old Honolulu Master Plan to push development toward Kailua and Kane'ohe gave way to plans to keep the island growing along what would eventually become the H-1 Corridor all the way to Makaha.

"The highway started to feed upon itself," Dinell said. "It made travel faster and that encouraged expansion and that created the need for more highways. It wasn't just cause and effect; it was all part of same push for growth."

By the early 1960s, Honolulu officials already recognized that the Mauka Arterial, by then renamed Lunalilo Freeway, was going to be inadequate to meet the demand for growth. Officials, looking to tap into federal highway money, pushed through a special act of Congress in 1960 admitting Hawai'i to the Interstate Highway System under a national defense classification because the highways would link Pearl Harbor, Schofield Barracks and the Marine Corps air station at Kane'ohe Bay.

City and state officials developed plans for at least five proposed routes for a new H-1 Freeway, including ones that would run down King Street, Beretania Street and Ala Moana Boulevard, as well as the H-2 and H-3 freeways. (An essential fourth component of the transportation plan was establishing a rapid transit system in downtown Honolulu, but that, too, never materialized, Matsuda said.)

All of the H-1 Freeway routes met strenuous opposition in the community, especially from businessmen in downtown Honolulu who feared the aesthetic and commercial fallout from putting an elevated roadway through the center of town, Matsuda said.

With the possibility of federal money slipping away, local officials came up with another plan, expanding and extending the old Mauka Arterial and rechristening it H-1 Freeway. The highway in its current shape from Kahala to Kalaeloa was finished in 1986.

By then, of course, the whole freeway system, just like Honolulu, was completely different from what was envisioned when work began in 1952.