The long-awaited opening of Kīhei High School is planned for January, but will it happen?
Construction of the upper campus of the beautiful new Kīhei High School — which sits mauka of Piʻilani Highway with Haleakala as a backdrop — is expected to finally be completed enough to open in January for a small inaugural class of ninth graders.
At the entrance to the school, road work on a multi-lane roundabout is about a month behind schedule, but still on track to be operational by January, according to Shelly Kunishige, communications manager at the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation.
So is South Maui’s long-awaited, much-needed high school that broke ground in 2016 really going to open in January? Well, maybe.
First, there is a big problem to solve.
For 10 years, a “grade-separated crossing” of an overpass or underpass for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the busy four-lane highway has been a requirement for opening the school safely. The state Land Use Commission put the condition in place in 2013 during the process of rezoning 77 acres of agricultural land to urban at the request of the Hawai’i State Department of Education (HIDOE).
The $16 million roundabout at the intersection of Piʻilani Highway and residential Kūlanihākoi Street will have only a road-level crosswalk with rapid flashing beacons, which many in the community think is dangerous.
After years of taking a position that an overpass or underpass was not necessary, HIDOE now is scrambling to comply with the condition. It recently commissioned a “Pedestrian Crossing Alternatives Study.”
During one of four community “listening sessions” last week, a presentation of five alternatives showed that even with the best-case scenario, completion of an underpass or overpass would take at least three years and possibly up to six.
Without an underpass or overpass, there are two ways the school can open in January:
- HIDOE obtains a temporary modification to the condition from the Land Use Commission in the next few months.
- Maui County does not enforce the condition.
Neither option appears likely, although HIDOE is working on a Hail Mary by trying to garner community support for temporary solutions through the study.
“The [Land Use Commission] may consider a Motion to Amend … if the County of Maui, HIDOT and the Department [of Education] all support a plan that has community support and is safe for pedestrians,” the Facilities Development Branch team of HIDOE stated in an email Tuesday.
Thatʻs a big if.
Less than a year ago, the Land Use Commission held firm on the condition, denying HIDOE’s request to open the school without an underpass or overpass after reviewing the issue for about a year. And Land Use Commission Executive Director Daniel Orodenker said Friday that HIDOE has yet to make a motion to the Commission to amend the condition.
But the Land Use Commission does not have enforcement powers, which puts the ball in Maui County’s court.
Michele McLean, Maui County’s Planning Department Director, said Monday the County’s position has been clear and is not changing under the administration of Mayor Michael Victorino. It will enforce the Land Use Commission’s condition: No overpass or underpass, no certificate of occupancy.
“We’ve been talking about this for well over a year that the pressure is going to come down, and the school is going to be built and ready to be open, and it’s going to be the Planning Department not signing off on the certificate of occupancy that is going to prevent the school from opening,” McLean said. “This is a horribly unfair position for the Department of Education to put the county in. Shame on them. Shame on them for doing that to us.”
She added: “It really is unfair to the parents and the kids who are desperate for the school to open.”
If Maui County issued the school a certificate of occupancy without meeting the state-mandated condition, Orodenker said: “From a legal standpoint, that gets sticky,” although he conceded “if the county doesn’t do anything to enforce the condition, then we can’t do anything about it.”
McLean said meeting the condition is also about public safety: “I am not going to be responsible for a kid getting injured or killed, or a parent get injured or killed … trying to cross that highway. They can do all the studies they want to, but surely using an overpass or underpass is safer than trying to pass at grade. That is not going to be on my hands.”
If a new mayor is elected in November, it is possible the new mayor and new planning director could make a different decision.
“But that would be a very difficult position to take, because there really isn’t much gray area here … not a whole lot of wiggle room for the county to do anything differently but enforce the condition,” McLean said.
Charlene Schulenburg, chairperson of the Bissen Movement, attended one of the listening sessions. She said mayoral candidate Richard Bissen does not have a position on this issue until he can learn more.
“Richard has said he has not had a chance to go through any of the studies, especially about safety,” Schulenburg said. “For him, it has got to be paramount about the safety of the keiki, and the families and the parents.”
In the community “listening sessions,” the presentation had background information that said HIDOE “determined an overpass was not needed for the initial 800-student enrollment through multiple studies approved by the Hawai’i Department of Transportation.”
The state DOT has repeatedly said that studies show two-lane roundabouts are safe for all users. The agency also planned to go to the Land Use Committee with data before and after the construction of the roundabout that would “hopefully” show it was safe for the opening of the high school, when the number of students attending would be limited to well below the eventual expected enrollment of about 1,650 students.
“HIDOE’s position has always been to defer to the expertise of the Department of Transportation … for highway improvements,” HIDOE’s Facilities Development Branch team said. But the team added that since the Land Use Commission’s motion denial in October 2021, it “has been looking into alternative pedestrian crossings to comply with the LUC conditions.”
It took nine months to launch the new study, which HIDOE says includes broader community outreach than previous studies.
It is not clear how many kids who were planning to attend the new high school in January could be affected. There are 27 ninth graders attending the temporary Kīhei High School location at Lokelani Intermediate, according to new Principal Halle Maxwell.
A projected enrollment chart shown at a listening session listed 60 students for the 2022-23 school year, followed by 199 in 2023-2024 and going up to 566 for 2027-28.
Asked what is plan B for the inaugural class, the HIDOE team wrote: “The department is focused on working out a solution so the January 2023 opening can happen.”
Many in the community already are not happy with the construction of the state’s first multi-use roundabout, with concerns about traffic flow and safety. But the roundabout is staying, no matter which alternative is selected for an overpass or underpass.
At the school entrance, construction also took place on a traffic light that lasted about nine months and cost $595,300. HIDOT said that project always was meant to be temporary for providing safety during construction of the school. The electrical service for the temporary signal will be used for the pedestrian rapid flashing beacons; and the camera detection system, traffic controller and poles have been repurposed.
“I know there is a high degree of frustration in what didnʻt happen or should have happened, but we are here to go forward with solutions,” Teena Rasmussen, a partner with Maui-based Skog Rasmussen that was hired by HIDOE to conduct the community outreach, told a listening session.
The community participants were asked to provide input about temporary and permanent solutions.
Two questions were asked about temporary solutions:
- Until a long-term crossing solution is found, what do you recommend for a temporary solution?
- I can support the school opening before a grade-separated pedestrian crossing is built if … (fill in the blank).
HIDOE said Maui County has told the agency it would be willing to meet to hear temporary options. McLean, the County’s planning department director, said that is true, but neither the state’s education nor transportation departments have been in contact with her for the past few months.
For the permanent solution, the underpass or overpass will be designed and built to coexist with the new roundabout or be constructed at another location most likely south of the school entrance, according to a presentation by the local firm G70 (the architect, planner and civil engineer on the school project) and Fehr & Peers (a firm that worked on the roundabout project and on overpass and underpass studies for the school).
Five alternatives were presented, with participants asked for the pros and cons of each. Participants also were invited to provide ideas about other alternatives.
The three overpass alternatives presented:
- at or near Kūlanihākoʻi Street
- at or near Waipuʻilani Gulch
- at or near East Waipuʻilani Road.
The two underpass alternatives presented:
- at or near Kūlanihākoʻi Street
- at Waipuʻilani Gulch utilizing an existing drainage culvert
The study also will include an online survey that will be sent out to community members later this month.
The study team will evaluate each alternative using criteria of usability, safety/security, schedule, costs, agency requirements and community input.
Funding of an overpass or underpass will come out of HIDOE’s budget. It will require millions of dollars for planning, design and construction, with all the permitting, studies, meeting requirements and a bidding/award process – and possibly land acquisition. In October, HIDOT said a pedestrian bridge over the highway could cost $20 million.
The Board of Education approved FY23 funding for Kīhei High School, but it did not make it through the legislative budget process.
“The FY24 Department budget is being prepared to include a phased funding request for the new high school,” the email from HIDOE said.
The evaulation findings will be shared at a community open house in mid-September, at a date and site to be determined.