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Federal highway expansion funds sought

Senator called on to help with Eastside projects

by Nathan Eagle – THE GARDEN ISLAND

Multiple agencies partnering to relieve “the most congested traffic corridor on island” solicited U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s help yesterday in finding federal funding to supplement the proposed projects.

“If it weren’t for this partnership … it would be almost impossible,” Inouye said at the Coco Palms hotel lobby where officials presented a status report on the projects. “I will do my best to get federal funds.”

The plans involve broadening Kuhio Highway, widening Wailua Bridge and undergrounding powerlines on the Eastside.

Aside from addressing traffic woes in the Wailua-Kapa‘a corridor, officials said the improvements would reduce utility damage caused by a natural disaster and protect endangered seabirds that are regularly killed by flying into the utility lines.

The estimated cost of the Wailua cane haul bridge widening project is $23 million, state Department of Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said.

The plans call for installing an Acrow prefabricated bridge on top of the 72-year-old cane haul bridge to create two southbound lanes and two northbound lanes plus an attached segment of the multi-use path.

The current state DOT schedule for the bridge widening project is to bid it out in July, award the contract in September, start construction in January and be completed by June 2010, a state DOT informational paper released yesterday says.

The road widening project calls for adding an additional southbound lane to create four total lanes of travel from Kuamo‘o Road to the Temporary Bypass Road, a .67-mile stretch of highway, which would address the Kuamo‘o and Haleilio bottlenecks. But environmental concerns must first be addressed, state officials said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pointed at the potential impacts to two pelagic seabirds — the Hawaiian Petrel, an endangered species, and the Newell’s Shearwater, a threatened species.

The two species are known to die from collisions with man-made structures. Nocturnally flying seabirds, especially fledglings on their way to sea in the fall, can become disoriented by exterior lighting.

USFWS told the state DOT that the existing highway lighting and above ground utility lines within the project area are bird attractants and obstacles to these seabirds.

The power lines are “like a net,” USFWS Assistant Field Supervisor Jeff Newman said.

The Wailua River area is one of five “hot spots” on island for shearwaters, he said.

In order for the road widening project to move forward, Morioka said the state must comply with the Endangered Species Act and needs an Incidental Take Permit.

Undergrounding the existing utilities is necessary to secure the permit, he said.

Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative President Randy Hee said the wires should be put underground from the Temporary Bypass Road to the Lydgate substation at Leho Road, a

1.6-mile stretch, which “ends up being a fairly expensive project for us.”

Initial engineer estimates of $11 million are now more than $15 million, he said.

With the effective utility rates rising to 47 cents per kilowatt-hour in July mostly due to increasing oil prices, Hee said, the undergrounding project would only further increase the financial burden on members.

The state DOT is willing to commit $7 million of its formula funds to do the undergrounding, Morioka said.

While acknowledging this contribution as “significant,” Hee said, “we’re looking for more.”

Federal help would relieve the cost that the roughly 24,000 KIUC members must absorb, he said.

Acting Mayor Gary Heu said the two projects were envisioned by Mayor Bryan Baptiste, who was working hard to bring them to fruition before he unexpectedly died of cardiac arrest on June 22 at Wilcox Memorial Hospital.

“Traveling down this road the last three years has not been easy,” Heu said. “If he were here, he would say to each of us, ‘Get to work.’”

Inouye was on island for a meeting he had scheduled with Baptiste to discuss the projects. He sent a news release last week that said he would carry out the mayor’s wishes which include working to secure additional federal dollars to reduce Kaua‘i’s electricity burden while allowing important road expansion projects to proceed.

Morioka said there has been talk of naming it Baptiste Memorial Bridge upon completion.

Baptiste locked numerous decision-makers in a room a few years ago until they found an answer to the traffic problem, Heu said.

The state had not been looking for a short-term solution, Morioka said, but found one that in less than three years is about to enter the construction phase.

“It was a true partnership,” he said.

The path that will run along the Acrow bridge will connect a 4.3-mile segment of the county multi-use path between Kapa‘a and Kealia and a 2.3-mile segment at Lydgate Park. The two sections are part of a 16-mile route that will eventually stretch from Nawiliwili to Anahola.

Similar to the bridges in Wainiha on the North Shore, the Wailua Acrow bridge will be constructed with a steel truss and treated for corrosion and is expected to last between 20 to 25 years. It will serve as a temporary solution to ease traffic flow in the Kapa‘a-Wailua corridor while state transportation officials develop a long-range plan for the area, a July 14, 2006, county news release states.

“Undoubtedly, spending time in traffic does affect our quality of life. It leaves us with less time for our families, productive work, as well as time for recreational activities,” Baptiste said in a June 6, 2006, county press release. “I am hopeful that our relentless pursuit of solutions to this problem will lead to Kaua‘i residents getting their fair share of federal funding for projects aimed at alleviating traffic congestion.”

Kuhio Highway connects Lihu‘e and Kapa‘a, the two largest urban centers on island, and provides the only interregional link for the North Shore and Eastside.

Although a morning contraflow lane alleviates some of the heavy travel demand in the southbound direction, after it is removed at roughly 10:30 a.m. on weekdays the capacity on the single through lane is insufficient to accommodate existing traffic volumes, according to the state DOT.

Congestion through the river corridor produces queues that affect the function and performance of intersections along the highway, according to the state DOT, only worsening in the event of accidents, repair work and the anticipated future increases in traffic volumes related to overall growth.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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