State officials have abandoned any pretense that storm-damaged Kuhio Highway west of Hanalei can reopen before late January, and some sources familiar with what they describe as an “unsettled” situation say the road might not be reopen until the second half of 2019 — or even later.
For weeks, people familiar with the project and the status of repair work have said discovery of previously unrealized damage and the severity of what occurred at several points on the road will make reopening before late January impossible. These same sources have agreed that the timeline could extend out to any time from next June to December.
In June, the state Department of Transportation estimated that full reopening could occur this month. In a subsequent update of the convoy schedule that provides access to the area for residents, DOT hinted that reopening might not occur before January.
A Wednesday news release, however, alluded to substantial additional delay.
“The previous estimate to have repairs significantly completed was the end of the year,” DOT said. “However, with additional storm events like Lane and Olivia, the completion timeline is being reevaluated.”
No revised schedule was provided.
The repair process ran into weather-related delays and discovery of numerous previously unrecognized engineering challenges. But a federally required process to certify that repairs will not damage the highway’s status on the National Register of Historic Places is a key factor, too, a state official familiar with it told The Garden Island.
Officials from several state agencies, including the DOT, are gathered in Honolulu for meetings scheduled to last until Friday to try to come to grips with numerous timing issues that have plagued the project. Joining the government officials are contractors and consultants.
In particular, the officials are focused on speeding up what is known in government circles as the “Section 106 process.”
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the law that governs the National Register, requires that multiple agencies evaluate and approve projects that may affect the function and design of a wide array of work on designated historic sites.
Kuhio Highway from the Hanalei Bridge to the end of the road gained listing on the National Register in 2004 after years of effort by North Shore community groups and residents who sought to protect it from fundamental changes in its design and flow. The drive for listing emphasized retaining the seven, one-lane bridges for which the highway is internationally famous.
The designation was lauded as an important development in protecting one of Kauai’s oldest roadways and numerous historic sites along the 10-mile stretch of what is also known as the Kauai Belt Road.
The April storm complicated a related project to repair or replace six bridges between Hanalei and Haena. The bridges are unable to accommodate even moderately heavy trucks and make it risky for even certain fire apparatus to cross.
The bridge project, in turn, was further complicated by a decision by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to move ahead with renovations and redesign of Haena State Park. The park renovations will halve visitor counts —from 2,000 to 1,000 per day — and resolve persistent traffic problems. Moving the park schedule up takes advantage of government disaster-relief funding.
So-called Section 106 approval is required for the bridge project, and all on-site work has been suspended for several weeks pending the outcome. At least four state agencies are required to officially accept the bridge design as protecting the historic nature of the highway before work can resume. Not all have done so, according to a DOT official.
All of the delays due to the panoply of factors have frustrated the agencies trying to reopen the highway to normal traffic. Many community members have expressed even more severe frustration, though a large number of residents continue to welcome return to the storm-recreated isolation of Haena that many cherish.
Larry Dill, the DOT’s chief engineer on Kauai, said “we are not nearly as frustrated as the community” with the many and varied delays and ongoing uncertainty about when the highway will reopen.
Since the storms, all access to points west of Hanalei has been restricted to residents and others with valid reasons to be there. Residents can come and go only by joining convoys that operate on a set schedule. The convoy operation has made it difficult for children to get to school and adults to get to and from jobs.
There are at least four sites on the highway where storm damage was extremely severe, with parts of the roadway collapsing, hillsides failing and existing retaining walls and other structures collapsing. On a convoy two weeks ago, it was clear that work is fairly far along at two of the sites, but at the other two major obstacles remain. Chief among them is the need to cut away and regrade part of a mauka hillside where the roadway has shifted but left no viable means of affecting repairs by shoring it up makai.
Some community advocates are trying to push ahead with a plan to create a shuttle system that could run from Princeville to Ke‘e Beach. Kauai County officials are known to be evaluating at least one shuttle proposal for possible receipt of federal and state disaster funds.
When such a system could go into operation and how much it would cost remain unknown, however. Also unknown is whether anyone but residents would be allowed to travel on such a shuttle, including visitors trying to get to Ke‘e and other tourist sites, or people with reservations at vacation rentals that dot the area.
The county has not disclosed when a decision on the shuttle proposal may be reached, although a community group that advocates for the shuttle was apparently asked follow-up questions about its plan as recently as last week.
Allan Parachini is a retired public relations executive and Kilauea resident who writes periodically for The Garden Island.