Unjamming Kapa’a’s traffic

KAPA’A – Start with an area where half the island’s population lives, that has about an equal percentage of Kaua’i’s visitor accommodations and a wealth of Kaua’i’s cultural treasures, and hundreds of acres of wetlands.

Add 27,000 vehicles a day on a single road, Kuhio Highway, which is only two or three lanes wide through its most-congested corridor, and you have some major design and planning challenges.

The words of a highway planner become a supreme understatement in this light.

“We’re seeing a real need for an alternate route,” said Glenn Kimura, president of the Honolulu planning and design firm Kimura International, Inc.

That route is necessary not only for relief from traffic congestion, but as an alternative route for emergency vehicles, he said.

“We’re really way over capacity. We understand the urgency,” he said at the second community meeting to discuss what’s being called the Kapa’a relief route, subtitled Kuhio Highway corridor improvements, Hanama’ulu to Kapa’a.

Around 150 people attended the meeting Monday night at Kapa’a Middle School, a turnout that pleased meeting planners who often have more consultants than members of the public in attendance at such gatherings, Kimura commented.

Kimura International Associates are in the middle of a three-year planning process to determine the most suitable alternatives for Kapa’a and Wailua traffic relief, and have begun writing a draft environmental impact statement that will consider environmental impacts given each roadway scenario.

And the scenarios are plentiful still, although one alternative on the “short list” of planned fixes, widening the existing Kuhio Highway to four lanes, doesn’t appear to have the community support for nor physical possibilities of occurring, Kimura explained.

Widening Kuhio to four lanes would require massive relocations of businesses, residences and public parks, and even then may not be possible, he said.

The alternatives all require new bridge construction across the Wailua River, with those choices still on the table including building a new bridge adjacent to the existing bridge, to another crossing three-quarters of a mile upstream from the existing bridge.

Another crossing alternative puts a new road smack through the middle of Smith’s Tropical Paradise, while a final crossing suggestion would call for a new road through the area now occupied by Smith’s Tropical Paradise’s parking lot, just mauka of Wailua Marina Restaurant.

On the Kapa’a side of the river, past the Kuhio-Kuamoo Road intersection that gets 2,100 Lihu’e-bound cars a day passing through it during the morning peak commuting hours, no less than nine different potential roadway scenarios are drawn mauka of Kuhio, all linking back up with the existing highway near Hau’a’ala Road on the north end of Kapa’a.

There is also a no-build alternative planners are required to explore, as well as a transportation system management alternative that is looking at what might be done (intersection improvements, connector roads, etc.) instead of building another highway.

The Kapa’a traffic improvement process has been in the discussion phase for decades, back to the 1960s when Kuhio businesses successfully fought against a planned second road through town they thought would kill their livelihoods.

The plan was delayed again in the 1990s, Kimura said, when a whole slew of federal laws involving the environment, protection of wetlands, and other issues forced the price tag of the improvements way up, making government officials put the improvements on the proverbial back burner.

Planning today involves coordination with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal, state and county governmental entities, on a variety of issues, he said.

The stretch that is Kuhio Highway from Leho Drive just on the Lihu’e side of Wailua River, to Kapa’a town, could be the most congested 2.7 miles of state highway in the state, because of the lack of any real traffic alternatives through the corridor, Kimura said.

The total eight-mile stretch, from Hanama’ulu to Kealia, was the site of 532 accidents in a five-year period, with many of those being bad accidents along the stretch of Kuhio near Wailua Golf Course known as “blood alley” because of its posted 50-mile-per-hour speed limit and lack of space to swerve to avoid accidents.

Virtually all of the routes under discussion now will require some home relocation, with three of the five proposed alignments running right through the middle of Wailua Houselots.

Four of the 10 Kapa’a configurations pass through land owned by entertainer Bette Midler, and some of the alignments were designed specifically to avoid flood zones and confirmed or potential wetlands.

The new road will first be built two lanes wide, with enough land acquired to expand it to four lanes when traffic conditions warrant it, Kimura said. The planning process is projecting fixes which are likely to suffice through 2025, he added.

Several questions and suggestions were heard from citizens in attendance, with County Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura suggesting a road parallel to Kuhio behind the Waipouli and Kapa’a shopping complexes that are along the highway.

Such a road could serve as an end point for connector roads between the new Wailua-Kapa’a mauka road, whichever alignment is finally selected, so that connector roads don’t bring traffic right back to congested Kuhio.

“Keep involved with this whole process,” the crowd was advised by Steve Kyono, Kaua’i district engineer with the state Department of Transportation Highways Division.

The group Monday night was an ethnic mix of young and old, with those focusing on the Wailua River portion of the plan including business people, recreational enthusiasts, and those concerned with preservation of the cultural and historical assets of the river basin.

There were retired residents of Wailua Homesteads, owners of Kapa’a businesses, elected officials including Mayor Bryan Baptiste, state Sen. Gary Hooser (D, Kaua’i, Ni’ihau), and County Councilmembers Jay Furfaro and Yukimura, and many other interested folks.

The planning phase is expected to run through the end of next year.

The project Web site is www.state.hi.us/dot/highways/hwy-p/kapaa_relief/index.html, and Steve Morikawa is the DOT Highways Division project manager on Kaua’i.

The consultants have established a toll-free telephone number to take public input on the project, 1-888-898-8886.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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