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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 19, 2004

Rush-hour test will shut Lunalilo on-ramp to H-1

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

The state plans to close a busy on-ramp to the westbound H-1 Freeway during the morning rush hour in a demonstration project aimed at easing a traffic backlog that often stretches from downtown Honolulu to Kaimuki.

State Transportation Director Rod Haraga told the Makiki Neighborhood Board last night that the Lunalilo Street on-ramp will be closed for three months starting in August.

The closure will allow state engineers to test a theory that the dangerous mixing of Lunalilo on-ramp and Vineyard Street off-ramp traffic is the prime culprit in the morning jam that slows thousands of westbound commuters to a crawl as they approach downtown Honolulu.

"We can't wait years for rail or some other big fix," Haraga said. "We have to do something right now to get our freeways moving."

More than 4,000 vehicles an hour merge on and off the freeway in the quarter-mile stretch between the on- and off-ramps during rush hour. A University of Hawai'i study estimates that closing the on-ramp could save freeway users 7 to 8 minutes in the area, Haraga said.

"We think all the weaving back and forth across the two lanes is what creates the backlog that stretches all the way back to Koko Head Avenue," he said.

While closing the on-ramp from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on weekdays will likely help commuters from as far away as Hawai'i Kai, it may create problems for thousands of people in the Makiki and Ala Moana areas who will have to find another way onto the freeway.

The most likely alternative entry points for Makiki commuters heading westward will be at Punchbowl and Punahou Streets, DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said.

Neighborhood board members said that they are willing to give the idea a chance, but worried that the project could worsen traffic on neighborhood streets.

"It shouldn't be a big problem," said Glenn Fong, a resident of Makiki Heights. "I'll just go to Punahou Street instead."

Board member Charles Carole said the change could put a lot of pressure on Punahou and other streets that are already crowded. "It's going to have an effect on the whole area," he said.

Haraga promised residents that engineers will monitor neighborhood as well as freeway traffic and make a final determination on closing the on-ramp based on the overall results. "I'm looking at the entire community," he said.

The freeway problem stems from having too many on-ramps and off-ramps in the area, Haraga said. Seven on-ramps are crowded into a one-mile westbound stretch of the freeway, which was designed and built more than 50 years ago. Typically, new freeway construction spaces on-ramps at least two miles apart to keep traffic flowing on the mainline.

The freeway is designed to smoothly handle up to 8,500 cars per hour, but because of all the merging, fewer than 7,000 cars per hour often squeeze through the area in a typical morning rush hour, Ishikawa said.

Under the $200,000 demonstration project, drivers will still be able to enter the Lunalilo Street on-ramp just past Pensacola Street, but they will not be able to merge onto the freeway.

Instead, metal roadway delineators will be erected to steer drivers to Vineyard Boulevard, where they will then be able to turn right and enter the freeway from the Punchbowl Street on-ramp.

The state conducted a similar experiment in 1998 that ended after less than two weeks, not enough time to let drivers adjust or to fairly evaluate the results, Ishikawa said.

"From what we heard, though, many people were just starting to get used to the change and traffic was starting to flow on the freeway when they pulled the plug," Ishikawa said.

Haraga said DOT wants to start the new demonstration during August when many students are out of school and roads are traditionally less crowded. That will allow drivers to get used to the changes by the time the traditional back-to-school traffic buildup begins in September, he said.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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