Mayor to Seek Extension of Hāna Highway Closure

June 29, 2020, 9:36 AM HST · Updated June 29, 11:31 AM
Wendy Osher · 86 Comments
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National Guard Troops support Hāna Highway checkpoints, limiting traffic into East Maui. PC: Maui Police Department, April 23, 2020.

By Wendy Osher

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino will send a letter to the governor this morning, requesting at least a two week extension on the Hāna Highway road closure between Kapakalua Road and Hāna Town.

Last week, the state Department of Transportation announced that the road would be open to full access on July 1.

The checkpoints after Twin Falls on the Hāna Highway at ʻUlupalakua Ranch on Piʻilani Highway, were established in April to provide an added layer of protection to the isolated community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  During the closure, discussion of a traffic management plan was raised as lawmakers look for traffic solutions going forward.

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Transportation officials said the restriction was aimed at addressing access and congestion concerns due to roadwork and vehicles along the rural two-lane highway. 

“I can keep the backside closed for now, but,” said Mayor Victorino during a Zoom meeting last night hosted by State Senator J. Kalani English of East Maui.  “I have no control of the state side.  So we will be requesting the governor for a two week extension so that we can be better prepared… and to look at what else we can finish up of the Management Plan and all the other aspects that you’ve been working on.  So I assure everybody that this call has not gone unheard,” said Mayor Victorino.

Sen. English explained, “The department (state Department of Transportation) is working under very strict constraints too.  If the work is done, they can’t keep the road closed.  That’s where the decision was made… We still have a few million dollars worth of repairs that need to do to make the road safe and passable, but right now the things that were about to fall off and deteriorate are done to the best that they can,” said Sen. English.

“I was born and raised in a small community.  I will do everything possible,” said Mayor Victorino.  “So tomorrow (today June 29) we’ll send out a letter asking the governor to extend it for another two weeks minimum, and I will assure you that we will keep the back end of the island through ʻUlupalakua closed for now… That I have the ability to do.  But that can only last so long.  I have to warn everybody, eventually the National Guard will be going back–August, September, somewhere around there, they’ll start withdrawing because–unless there’s a big spike, they will be pulled out,” said Mayor Victorino.

“So I will work on the medical part and I’ll work on seeing if we can close–I don’t know if we can. I will try.  I will give it my best effort,” said Mayor Victorino.

“I meet with the Governor every Monday morning and he did say that the road closure is not necessarily tied to the repair of the highway and the National Guard being there,” said Sen. English.  “He was open to trying to find a pathway to keeping.. but we need to know what’s the reason.  The National Guard has to have a reason to be there,” said Sen. English.

“What the mayor said is absolutely correct–that Rep. Lynn DeCoite and I have both asked the mayor to consider, even after it opens to keep the National Guard there. The mayor will make the same request, but again, he has to talk to his different departments…. It could be that what one of the themes that came out of our discussion here–We do not have the medical ability to handle anything in Hāna,” said Sen. English.

“Throughout the discussion we have heard we don’t have the ability–let’s create that ability. Let’s support what Hāna Medical Center needs; let’s support what other doctors in Hāna need–the medical infrastructure and let them put that in.  That will be the beginning of us getting out of this particular situation,” said Sen. English.

What’s the legal basis to manage traffic:

“We cannot control traffic, we cannot tell people they cannot go; but we can manage it,” said Sen. English, noting that state officials checked with the federal government and Attorney General to better understand the parameters for proceeding with a traffic management plan.

“Anytime we have local roads or public access ways, we are restricted to allowing access to everyone.  That’s the restriction from the federal government and from the state to DOT. The access ways must be available full time to everyone unless we see a health and safety issue related to the use of that roadway that must be restricted,” said Ed Sniffen, Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation Deputy Director for Highways.

“For instance when we look at Hāna Highway and the emergency repairs that we had to do, we knew that if we allowed full access to the area, it could potentially compromise health and safety throughout,” said Sniffen.

“This is similar to Hāʻena when we did Kūhiō Highway work.  And similar to Hāʻena, when we start looking at the management plan that was put in place… the big driver for the traffic to go out that side that caused a lot of parking in the wrong areas in different communities was the state park.  We worked with DLNR and state parks to make sure they started managing those areas.  They put in reservation systems for those parking lots, and then started making sure that it was illegal to park in these other locations.  So now, effectively, they managed the are with parking. Now you don’t see the volumes of traffic in the past and you don’t see those people circling the area to find parking.  If you don’t have a reservation, you don’t go. Nobody told them you cannot go, it’s just there’s no reason for them to go unless they have a reservation,” said Sniffen.

“I love the approach that you guys are taking to put this reservation system together because that’s how we can effectively manage that corridor,” said Sniffen.

“One of the big things that we learned from Hāʻena (on Kauaʻi) is that after the system went in place, people didn’t know what to expect.  But after their experience, they found that the visitors were happy with it because they had a parking space, it wasn’t crowded, they knew their time (I think it was a two hour time period they were given to enjoy the place).  Locals had free parking.  There was a specific area for them.  They were integrated into the parks so they opened up some really old loʻi; they have things happening in that park together. So it really worked for everybody,” said Sen. English. “That’s what we’re looking at for Waiʻānapanapa and a bigger system for the entire Hāna Highway–front side and back side,” he said.

“It was an absolute godsend to resource management,” said Sniffen.  “The resources that we have–natural and physical–are all managed now based on that reservation system.  Everyone is much happier.  No one wants to spend time looking for parking in areas where you don’t know if you’ve got it or not.  It was a tremendous opportunity that everyone took…  It wasn’t just DLNR that had to do it.  We had to make sure that we coordinated with the travel industry and everyone else so that we made sure we got information to everyone who is visiting Kauaʻi to make sure they knew that the reservation system existed and is required. Otherwise we’d still have that same traffic going out there,” said Sniffen.

Mixed Sentiment about Reopening:

Sen. English noted there was pressure from families in Hāna wanting to do family reunions at the Waiʻānapanapa cabins.  Still others who own businesses were insistent that the Hāna Highway reopen.

“We’ve had two sides of it.  The Mayor was under great pressure as was I and as was Rep. Lynn (DeCoite) and Councilmember Shane (Sinenci) from people from different parts of the island demanding to come to the East side.  Other emails have indicated that people are scared and fearful for their safety…  With those emails I simply told them, I don’t think it’s a good time for you to go right now anyway… wait for a time when we are a little better off,” said Sen. English.

“Iv’e got to ask the state–DOCARE and DLNR, they have to help us too.  We need to all come together.  But I will not and do not like or care for vigilante-ness,” said Mayor Victorino.  “Because if you do it right and politely, you can handle.  The thing is when they get angry and they do something foolish, it looks bad on all of us and we don’t need that kind of publicity… I don’t want to see that with anybody.  This is our island.  This is our people and I want to make sure that everything stays right,” said Mayor Victorino.

Traffic Management plan for East Maui:  

“We have been working on that.  There has actually been a lot of headway made working between the different departments,” said Sen. English, noting that the state Department of Transportation, Department of Land and Natural Resources, state Park and National Parks as well as other government agencies and the County of Maui are involved in discussions.

“There are many different departments involved. The state Department of Transportation Highways Division–they are the ones that made the call on opening the highway, based on their data and information. The highway will be open from Tuesday to all traffic–which means anyone on the island would be able to come.  Tourist traffic coming in from the mainland is at a minimum right now.  The trans-Pacific flights are still at a minimum.  On Aug. 1 is when they will be implementing a program that will allow you to–it’s a choice–you will either do a two week quarantine or you will take a COVID-19 test a couple of days before coming to Hawaiʻi and with those negative results, you can bypass the quarantine,” said Sen. English.

“I can tell you up front, just personally, I am not comfortable with the opening of the road, the opening of the Hāna Highway, but I also understand from the Departmental prospective they have to do it,” said Sen. English.

Mayor Victorino commented on the plans saying, “I continue to work with the entire county–not just Hāna but all of the county to make sure that wellbeing and health is number one.  Every policy we put in place has been that, and that only as the priority.  Now as the state is starting to open up, I’ve got to make sure that whatever is in place is going to protect you.”

“I agree with the management plan,” said Mayor Victorino.  “I agree with the ability to have some sort of means for controlling the traffic because I’ve gone out there many times and it’s been a challenge, and I respect the right of all the residents to live there safely–whether it’s Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Hāna it doesn’t make a difference.  But also I have the rest of the county to concern myself with and make sure all the county is protected in the best manner possible,” he said.

“To reopen this island and get our economy back in diversification and agriculture–all that–it will take all of us working together and having more bureaucracy is not the means we look for.  I think we need to have good, well thought out plans and this is important… I don’t always want to hear from the people who have special interest.  I want to hear from your community because the community is the pulse of our whole county.  That’s something that I’ve always treasured and will continue to treasure,” said Mayor Victorino.

“We already, in the county, make sure that commercial activities aren’t allowed on Sundays and holidays–that was something I implemented the first on this year.  I continue to make sure that our residents have time–quality time with their families and enjoy our beach parks and our beaches wherever the county has control.  Maybe the state can look at something like that. I know you can’t do that every week, I understand,” said Mayor Victorino.  “If we need to take back so our residents have the time to spend and go and spend time together and not have a lot of tourists and core activities in those areas.  It’s their time and we’ve worked hard to make that happen.  I continue to work with all of you to make sure we make Maui a better place after all is said and done,” he said.

Sen. English said officials are still working on the system for the entirety of the road for the Hāna Highway on both sides and how to try to put in some sort of reservation and management system in place.

“We are not out of the woods with COVID-19 and in fact as we are watching today, there were 10,000 new cases in Florida; the day before that there were 9,000 new cases in Florida.  Other states are starting to spike up again,” he said.

“Hawaiʻi has done a very, very good job of not allowing that spike to happen here. Earlier on they said flatten the curve–we were able smash the curve and keep it at very, very low numbers.  So all of us together moving ahead, how do we do this? How do we work together to ensure that we work together to create something that allows the free passage of people –because that’s what the federal, state and county government requires when we have public roads.  How do we manage that and how do we manage what happens on the East side,” said Sen. English.

Key Highway Projects Completed; More to Come

“We had six emergency projects that we had to take care of sooner rather than later to make sure that we could keep all of the users of Hāna Highway safe.  When we started looking at the situation, especially with COVID coming through, the reduction of traffic down to 60% of normal, this was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the situation, minimize the traffic on the route so that we could get a lot of work done,” said Ed Sniffen, Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation Deputy Director for Highways.

“So we took care of a lot of our emergency repairs with our guardrails and shoulder improvements to ensure the safety of everyone on that route.  There’s still some work to do in the future, but the materials that we’ve ordered to take care of that work are not here yet.  Part of the difficulty is that broken supply chain during this COVID situation.  We expect to get some more materials in the latter part of August and will work with the community on how to improve things throughout that route,” said Sniffen.

“On the numbers… near Hoʻokipa Beach Park, we have a traffic counting station that generally we see 14,000 vehicles per day…  Going down to Hana near Keʻanae, we see about 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles.  During the COVID situation, before we started the restrictions on the highway, we saw that count down to about 8,500.  So about a 40% reduction, similar to what we saw throughout the state.  We saw this as the perfect opportunity to make sure we take care of this route, make it safe for everybody, and minimize any impacts we could,” said Sniffen.

Sen. English said that while repairs were done on critical projects along the highway, there is a lot more work to be done.  A project to deal with recurrent landslides in Nāhiku is among the projects that are awaiting supplies.

“In that area, we have the upper slopes that are coming down to the road, and the lower slopes that are eroding under the road itself.  We can keep it safe for now, but it’s just a matter of time before we start minimizing or impacting that roadway,” said Sniffen.

“We ordered soil mills to make sure we can stabilize the slopes.  We’re going to shot-crete it as well so that it’s as stable as possible.  Hana Highway is just a challenging route because it’s a very narrow route through a very narrow corridor.  But we’re going to make the best of it. We know that it’s always been difficult to traverse that area, especially with tourists coming through,” said Sniffen.

It’s very difficult for us to shut down a route because it’s a public access way and it could impact future funding from the federal Highways Administration,” said Sniffen.

Additional work that must still be done throughout the route is seven bridges that are in poor condition that the state is looking at replacing.

“Central Federal Lands–a sister agency of the Federal Highways is helping us for studies through that area and we are progressing the designs.  Each bridge will be about $6.5 million.  But in order to get to those bridges, we’re going to have to retrofit or upgrade three bridges before that.  So it’s a total of 9-10 bridges that we’re going to have to address as we go through that route.  Of course we’re going to be working with the community to see how we do those while minimizing impacts to the public,” said Sniffen.

Sen. English said, “They were able to do what would normally have taken a few years to do during this time. That work is complete and they have decided they will be opening roads.”

Reservation System Eyed for Waiʻānapanapa: 

With the state parks, Sen. English said he is working on a particular system that has already been adopted in Haʻena and Kēʻē on Kauaʻi.

“The DLNR staff will be taking this to the Board of Land and Natural Resources I believe on July 7–a set of rules that will allow Waiʻānapanapa to adopt the same standards as Kēʻē and Haʻena.  So that means they would have to do a reservation system to get in. There will be a fee. It’s based on parking. It’s time allocation,” said Sen. English.

“We’re also going to ask them to allow for–we don’t know exactly what it is–so we’re going to give you an idea right now–that maybe one Sunday a week… it’s closed off for local families.  So that no tourists–nobody goes in there.  East Maui residents get to go in and we don’t get charged.  It’s open for us to go.  Sort of like the old days when we used to go down there and like the hukilau and fishing and just enjoying the place.  I remember going with my grandparents… they would go with the Hanalani club to do their outings at Waiʻānapanapa,” said Sen. English.

If the board approves the plan, it would be a first step to allowing such a system to be put into place.

East Maui Councilmember Shane Sinenci said, “I’m so happy to hear about the state reservation system being implemented at Waiʻānapanapa.  It’s a right move and right direction.  As you know, Waiʻānapanapa and the whole Wākiu-Kaelekū coastline is a special place for us–there’s a lot of culturally significant sites as well as burials.”

“So we’re happy to hear that we’re going to be limiting those types of visitors to this special place and that we have those visitors that are respectful of the area and that they can plan their trip accordingly so that they are visiting some of these special sites–special for us in Hāna.  I appreciate that, and hopefully we look into more reservation systems both on the road as well as in Kīpahulu,” said Sinenci.

In terms of opening up state parks like Kaumahina, Puaʻa Kaʻa and Waiʻānapanapa State Park, Sen. English said,  “That’s up to the DLNR. I do know that DLNR wants to open the cabins.”

“As long as the state parks in East Maui remain closed, the National Park will keep Kīpahulu closed,” said Sen. English. “Once our parks on the East side open, they will open as well.”

Concluding Thoughts:

If I had complete control of this, I wouldn’t open the road.  But I do not, so we have to manage it as best we can,” said Sen. English.

“That’s why this is the only place in Hawaiʻi we’re doing this type of consultation where we have different people coming on… We’re allowing mainland flights coming in from Aug. 1 with testing. I’m very kānalua (doubtful) of that as well.  We have to put in the best protections we can,” he said.

“We’re trying our best to protect everybody out there and at the same time allow the need to create their businesses and do it safely,” said Sen. English.

What happens with the Hāna Highway has some parallels to the quarantine issue, which is currently the subject of a lawsuit against the Governor.  The department of Justice issued an opinion in support of the lawsuit, alleging the quarantine for arriving travelers is unconstitutional.

Sen. English called it a “politicalization” of the issue, turning the matter into a political one.

“What we tried to do was to say that for the health and safety of everyone, here’s a process that we’re asking before you come to Hawaiʻi.  The Department of Justice is saying that under the US Constitution, 390 million people have the right to move wherever they want no matter what.  I think that did weigh into the executive side–the governor’s and the mayor’s thinking–they have to consider those things.  But we have a good team fighting that and hopefully we will prevail on that particular issue,” said Sen. English.

“I don’t know what it would take for us to go back to a shutdown,” said Sen. English.  “I think that if we start spiking in Hawaii we’ll reconsider it.  The other hand is people have to–sort of the economic safety and the economic need as well.  So that’s why I said upfront you know that I prefer the road to remain closed personally, but as a public policy maker, I also understand that we have to balance everybody’s needs and try to make this work as best we can.”

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served nearly 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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