Stryker may add a twist to Saddle Road upgrades
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By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i The first phases of a $220 million effort to rebuild the pitted, winding Saddle Road that cuts between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are set to kick off tomorrow with a groundbreaking ceremony, but Defense Department plans for a Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Hawai'i could detour the project.
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Much of Saddle Road on the Big Island is a patchwork of repaired potholes winding over and around blind hills and curves. U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye has called the road "the most dangerous in the state of Hawai'i."
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Lt. Col. John Williams, public affairs officer for the Army's Stryker transformation, said the Army hasn't acquired the land yet, but if it does, the military would like to eliminate hazards by routing civilians outside of the training area, if possible. "If that comes to fruition, then we would definitely need to look at a way to alleviate that conflict," Williams said.
Built by the Army in 1942, the Saddle Road extends 48 miles from the rainy Upper Kaumana area east of Hilo to a junction with Mamalahoa Highway 6 miles south of Waimea.
It connects the Mauna Kea Science Reserve International Astronomical Observatory Complex and the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area to the rest of the island.
Much of the highway is a patchwork of repaired potholes, winding over and around blind hills and curves as it runs along miles of old lava flows, pasture land and thick rain forest.
Rental car companies prohibit their customers from driving Saddle Road, but local commuters routinely barrel down the center line to avoid the bumps.
U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who will attend tomorrow's groundbreaking, called the Saddle Road "the most dangerous in the state of Hawai'i."
Since 1986, there have been 11 traffic deaths on the road.
Proponents see the highway as an economic development project that will encourage more tourists in Kona to visit Hilo, and help workers in Hilo get to jobs in booming Kailua.
Waimea veterinarian Billy Bergin has been traveling on the Saddle Road since the early 1950s. He said he is familiar with "every inch" of the highway and is an outspoken supporter of the project.
"I see a huge payoff, and I see it in the very households of those people on the eastern side of the island who seek work in the travel industry and yet are native to Puna or native to Hilo or native to Ka'u," he said. "That's their pathway to get to work."
Inouye believes the project will create more of a psychological bond between East and West Hawai'i. Kona residents complain that they are shortchanged by politicians in Hilo, the county seat.
"Right now ... the Big Island is divided up into two counties, two communities. If you can get the two communities working together, the potential for development on that island will grow geometrically," Inouye said.
But Waimea resident John Dore thinks the whole idea is an expensive mistake. Dore, a Cyanotech Corp. scientist, drives on the Saddle Road to reach hiking and camping areas.
"I see it as another step toward taking away our vast empty spaces, and I don't think that people here in the Islands quite appreciate how much that's really worth, having that big open space without the freeway running through it," he said.
The Saddle Road cuts through portions of the 109,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area, and a rationale for the costly project was to separate civilian cross-island traffic from military vehicles racing around during military exercises. On occasion, those exercises have included the firing of 105 mm and 155 mm artillery rounds over the road as civilian traffic passed by.
The new alignment routes civilian traffic north of the training areas.
The first phases of the project will upgrade and realign 13 miles from the Mauna Kea Access Road past Pohakuloa for about $50 million. It should be open for traffic by fall 2006, said Dave Gedeon, project manager for the Federal Highways Administration.
Early next year highways officials hope to begin work on a nine-mile stretch from an area 19 miles west of Hilo to the Mauna Kea Access Road turnoff area.
The road cuts through some of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state.
To protect native forest lands and limit the spread of invasive species, the FHA is demanding that all construction equipment be steam-cleaned and fumigated before it is hauled to Saddle Road construction sites. To avoid the possibility of downing endangered petrels and threatened Newell's shearwaters confused by construction lighting, no lighting will be allowed after dark from April through October.
To protect Hawaiian hawks that might be nesting along the route on the Hilo end of the project, the right-of-way will be searched. If an active nest is found, construction must stop within a half-mile of the nest while the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is consulted.
The federal government may even require that fill dirt used to build the road be "sterilized" to prevent introduction of non-native organisms.
Another environmental concern arose because the new route cuts through 120 acres of land designated as critical habitat for the endangered palila bird. In response, the federal government agreed to spend $15 million to set aside nearly 10,000 acres of state and federal land on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to offer the birds new areas to feed and nest.
Now, after sorting out all of those complications, the Army's Stryker Brigade is raising new issues.
"We have no reason to believe that we're going to need to shift our road again, but until the Army gives us a better idea of what they're proposing to do in that area, we just won't know," Gedeon said.
Reach Kevin Dayton at (808) 935-3916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.