Hawaii set for years of roadwork in 'huge' $4B highways plan
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Get ready for six years of road construction and traffic delays as the state kicks off its unprecedented, $4 billion highway modernization plan meant to revamp the major arteries commuters use.
Brennon Morioka, state Department of Transportation director, said the highways plan is nearly as significant as the advent of the freeway system in Hawai'i in the 1960s and '70s. The changes will be that big, and will be around for generations to come.
"It's huge," Morioka said. "I don't think the department has for a very long time taken a comprehensive approach like this. We have gotten into a pattern of simply doing what we can with what we have."
And he added the projects will affect traffic in a big way in small and large communities statewide. He also said it will all be worth it, with considerably shortened commute times for many, improved signage and traffic tracking, better bike access and fewer highway deaths.
"I think people realize the benefits at the end of the tunnel," Morioka said.
The state plans to hold community meetings on the plan later in the year and will also launch a Web site as early as this week so people can track the progress of the plan online. (A link to the new site will be available at http://hawaii.gov/dot).
Meanwhile, there is some early opposition to key parts of the plan.
Some Kalihi residents and businesses are speaking out against the long-controversial Nimitz Highway "flyover," an elevated, two-lane roadway that would replace the existing morning contraflow lane on the thoroughfare. The $600 million, 2.2-mile flyover is the most expensive project in the highways plan.
Ron Jones, Kalihi Business Association board member and past president, called the flyover an "eyesore" that would cripple small businesses in the area. The flyover would run from the Ke'ehi interchange to Pacific Street, zipping commuters through Kalihi with no way to get off until its end.
Morioka said the flyover — first proposed in the mid-1990s — would be reversible, with two lanes heading into town in the morning and two lanes going west-bound in the afternoon. He said drivers who want to stop in Kalihi would still be able to do so by taking Nimitz Highway, and added the flyover is the only option for relieving Nimitz bottlenecks. "The only way to go is up," he said.
The modernization plan is also raising concerns among several bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups who say it is too car-centric and vague about the millions of dollars in improvements to bike lanes and pedestrian safety.
"We wonder how this is any different than business as usual," said Justin Fanslau, spokesman for One Voice for Livable Islands, a coalition of advocacy groups, including AARP and the Hawaii Bicycling League. "You cannot build simple streets, roads and highways and expect to improve air quality."
He said the plan, which would beef up existing bike and pedestrian safety programs and also dedicate money to new bike lanes and pedestrian signals, is still about building roads and accommodating other modes of transportation. He said instead it should be about providing safe access to all transportation modes.
"It's really a big mind shift," he said.
The plan, which was unveiled Jan. 22, would touch residents in just about every community on every island, except Lana'i. It includes some 183 projects, from setting up a $50 million afternoon contraflow lane on H-1 Freeway west-bound to constructing a Lahaina Bypass for about $175 million.
On O'ahu alone, some 76 projects are planned at a cost of $1.9 billion.
The plan is designed to decrease the number of people killed on Hawai'i highways each year by about 40 and cut daily commute times by as much as 30 minutes. Officials estimate someone who lives in Kapolei and works in Honolulu could save up to $1,825 a year in gas, time spent in traffic and car wear and tear.
But that savings won't come cheap in the short run.
The state said half of the plan would be paid for by state and federal appropriations, while the rest would come from increases in fuel and weight taxes and vehicle registration fees, setting the average driver back about $170 a year.
The tax and fee increases wouldn't go into effect right away, but would be triggered by 1 percent job growth over two consecutive quarters. State officials say the growth trigger is designed to make sure people can afford the increases.
Morioka said many of the larger projects would start construction phases in about two years, when the job growth requirement is expected to have been met and the economy is forecast to be improving. Some of the projects are in planning phases now, while other smaller work (such as a complimentary tow program on the freeways) is set to kick off as early as this summer.
Key state lawmakers have backed the tax and fee increases, which require legislative approval. State Sen. Will Espero, Transportation Committee chairman, said the increases aren't ideal, but are needed to make overdue road upgrades.
"If we didn't have a growing population, we wouldn't have to make such investments," Espero said last week. "And until we have a perfect transportation system, we do have to widen roads and build new roadways."
FEW DETAILS RELEASED
Few specifics on projects in the plan have been released, beyond estimated price tags. Some of the projects were suggested years ago to tackle bottlenecks or safety concerns. Others were added as the plan was being compiled. Many target congestion, but others focus on stabilizing bridges, protecting shorelines and stabilizing slopes. Some would also beef up traffic management systems.
Though the plan is designed to cut traffic congestion, commutes are still projected to worsen over the next decade. The state says Kapolei residents spend about 130 minutes in traffic on average per day. In 10 years, with the plan in place, that commute will increase by 10 minutes. Without the changes, Kapolei residents would spend about 170 minutes commuting to town each day, according to state figures.
Gordon Lum, the O'ahu Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director, said some people would say the plan isn't worth the cost if commuting times are still expected to increase. But he disagrees and thinks most drivers will come around sooner or later. "The only way you can get better (commute times) is to build more highways," he said. "And what would that cost us?"
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.