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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 24, 2005

Overhaul in works for Nimitz Highway

 •  Map (opens in a new window): Proposed changes

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Nimitz Highway, the working-class backbone of Honolulu's transportation network, is getting prepared for an overhaul, with repaving, zip lanes, "flyovers" and tunnels all part of the plan.

Cars wind along Nimitz Highway near the Aloha Tower Marketplace. One developer wants to send four lanes there underground.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Some of the projects, including a $2 million resurfacing set to start next month, are right around the corner. Others, such as a proposal to build a two-lane, elevated, reversible flyover will take years to complete and still face serious economic and environmental challenges.

All of them, though, are moving forward and designed to upgrade the nearly 60-year-old road, best known for its industrial look and its industrial-strength traffic snarls at all hours of the day, transportation officials said.

"They should be doing that stuff. This road needs to be one of the best on the island. It's an economic lifeline for a lot of people," said Matt O'Berry, a construction worker from St. Louis Heights whose business takes him somewhere along the Nimitz industrial corridor almost every day.

Among the Nimitz happenings:

• Workers are putting the finishing touches — including a complete repaving — on a project that has left the highway between Aloha Tower and Iwilei torn up for almost 18 months.

• By early March, another contractor will start repaving the long stretch from the Ke'ehi Interchange to Iwilei.

• Details are expected to be announced this week of a planned $9 million extension of the H-1 Freeway zipper lane, connecting it to the successful Nimitz contraflow lane opened in late 2003.

• State engineers continue planning the elevated "flyover" and say a detailed proposal and environmental assessment should be ready this year.

• A developer wants to send a part of the highway underground near Aloha Tower to create a pedestrian-friendly connection between downtown Honolulu and a planned commercial and residential development along Honolulu Harbor.

• Government and private groups are continuing efforts to turn the highway's drab landscape into a ribbon of green planting.

"It all sounds great. Anything they can do to alleviate the traffic problems and create alternatives would help," said Ray Hardman, who lives in McCully and each day drives to work on the highway named for Chester Nimitz, the Navy admiral who commanded the Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbor during World War II.

Not pretty

Engineers predicted at its inception that Nimitz would need to grow. Construction of the airport viaduct began in 1979.

Advertiser library photo

Frustration with delays along Nimitz in 1983 was evident.

Advertiser library photo

Almost since the first construction on the highway started in 1942 as a way to let wartime Honolulu workers quickly reach jobs in the Pearl Harbor area, the highway has been crowded, full of potholes and — not to put too fine a point on it — ugly.

Built for $1.5 million in 1947, Nimitz Highway was Honolulu's first eight-lane road, and carried more than 12,000 cars a day from the start, taking pressure off the old Kamehameha Highway, just as it serves as an east-west alternative to H-1 Freeway today.

Even in 1947, when there were only 72,000 vehicles in Honolulu (compared with more than 650,000 today), engineers predicted that the highway would need to continue to grow, as it has in spurts ever since.

Now, it's happening again.

Following the success of the contra-flow lane, which cut morning commuting times in the busy H-1/Nimitz corridor by up to 20 minutes, DOT officials say the repaving and zipper lane extension are important next steps to improve the road, now used by an average 72,000 vehicles a day.

The 2.7-mile extension of the zipper lane, which now ends near Honolulu International Airport, would allow more car-poolers a direct route into Honolulu, easing congestion on other roads, including the freeway and Dillingham Boulevard, officials say.

"Right now I have to leave my home in 'Ewa Beach by 5 a.m. if I want to beat the morning traffic jam on Nimitz, and I try to avoid it at all other times, too, because the traffic is bad all day," said Stevens Fernandez, a fish wholesaler and retailer in Kalihi who thought the zipper lane extension and future flyover made sense.

Going over, under

Organizations such as Scenic Hawai'i have been working to soften the industrial look of the corridor. GY

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

A scaled-down version of a 1997 proposal to double-deck the highway, the $250 million flyover project would allow town-bound drivers to use both lanes in the morning and then reverse the flow in the afternoon.

State Transportation Director Rod Haraga has said he hopes to have a supplemental environmental impact statement for the flyover completed later this year. If approved, the elevated road between Ke'ehi Interchange and Pacific Street could be completed in 2009.

Many residents objected to the previous proposal to double-deck the highway on aesthetic grounds. Haraga said the new design would be sensitive to that issue.

"The elevated lanes would be built on single columns about 190 feet apart down the center of the highway, leaving room for lots of light and landscaping. It won't look anything like the part out by the airport," Haraga said.

Nimitz by the numbers

6.5. miles of highway from Richards Street to Hickam Air Force Base's main gate.

92. Official state route designation for Nimitz Highway.

1947. Year the first eight-lane segment of the highway was opened.

72,000. Average number of vehicles using Nimitz Highway each day.

$2 million. Estimated cost of resurfacing highway from Ke'ehi Interchange to Iwilei.

$250 million. Proposed cost to build an elevated, two-lane road above existing highway.

"It makes sense," said Hardman, the McCully resident. "There's only so much room between the mountain and the oceans, so you might as well build up. What else can they do?"

Meanwhile, developer Ken Hughes has proposed realigning four lanes of the highway fronting Aloha Tower and sending them underground as part of his $300 million residential and commercial waterfront development.

Hughes said tunneling the highway between Fort Street and the federal court building would reduce 80 percent of the diamondhead-bound traffic on the surface lanes, creating a more pedestrian-friendly area and safer links to downtown Honolulu.

Hughes hopes to negotiate a formal agreement for the development with the state later this year and begin selling bonds for it by March, but there's no formal agreement yet on moving ahead with the project. State officials said federal money could be available.

Fix it up

Back on the surface, efforts are under way to beautify the grounds along the highway, which has always had a reputation of being somewhat disheveled.

"After arriving at a beautiful airport framed with Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, the Ko'olau range and Ke'ehi Lagoon, we all know the letdown of the ride along a barren highway that could be almost any place in the world — almost any place with freeways, warehouses, oil refinery plants, auto junkyards, factories and nondescript fringe businesses of an industrial section," Mayor Neal Blaisdell said in 1966, announcing the first of several Nimitz beautification efforts. Most of the early efforts failed because of maintenance problems.

Last year, though, city and state officials agreed to work together on an $800,000 landscaping project between Ward Avenue and Iwilei, officially on Ala Moana Boulevard but considered by many a part of the Nimitz corridor.

A private organization, Scenic Hawai'i's Nimitz Beautification Committee, has been working for years to improve the area from Aloha Tower to the airport, with tree-plantings, pocket parks and plantings in front of businesses.

"It's still the gateway into Waikiki for a lot of people coming to visit O'ahu," said Cis Crocker George, Scenic Hawai'i's president. "We're working with businesses, landowners, government and volunteers to make it look better one project at a time."

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