Talk Story with Lee Steinmetz

LIHUE — Lee Steinmetz started work as the Kauai County Transportation Planner in December, and is committed to making the island roads safer and more accessible to bikes and pedestrian traffic with the Multimodel Land Transportation Plan.

As a landscape architect, Steinmetz ran a private consulting firm in California before coming to Kauai two years ago. His experience with parks and recreation and transportation project led him Kauai where he said it is preferable to see a project all the way through from planning to implementation.

“It’s really nice to be able to do my work in the same place that I live,” said Steinmetz.

TGI: What is it that you do?

My title is transportation planner and I am officially part of the Planning Department. My office is located in public works and that is purposeful because my role is really to be a liaison between planning and public works on transportation projects and specifically related to implementing the Multimodel Land Transportation Plan.

We look at how to improve sidewalks, bicycle facilities, transit and how to incorporate all of that into our transportation planning and implementation. I look at everything from big picture planning down to the specifics of how we want a street to be designed so that we make sure to incorporate all those things as we move forward. Or, when we are doing a resurfacing project, to think about adding bike lanes or if we want to re-stripe it in a different way to accommodate the different needs.

TGI: Is public participation in planning important?

We are really changing how we do things where maybe in the past a fully developed design would be presented to the public and it created frustration when people didn’t like it and they asked why didn’t they weren’t asked before you designed it and it created a lot of time delays.

So now we are going out to the public much earlier to find out what are their goals and what they would like to see a project accomplish. We try to develop a design based on the input we receive so that the end result is a design that better reflects what the community is looking for. That is kind of a change in how we do things and like the mayor says, it’s better to address the emotional issues up front first before we even launch down the design path so that we know what we are dealing with.

We can’t always address everyone’s needs but one of my goals is for people to feel that maybe we haven’t addressed all their needs and maybe they didn’t get everything they wanted but at least they were heard. If we can’t do something then at least we can explain why that wouldn’t work.

TGI: How do you relieve road congestion?

There are different ways to address congestion and the traditional method for the past 50 years has been to widen our roads and predicting future traffic will parallel population growth. That hasn’t worked well because widening highways actually generates more traffic by encouraging more trips and more people move further out. This ends up filling capacity and you never get out of that and it gets worse and worse.

What is really called for is mode shift, where you accommodate growth by shifting modes of transportation. Instead of having everybody take their trip in the car we make it more possible for short trips to the store or school on foot or on bike. If we have better connectivity between neighborhoods then we have more options to avoid gridlock and congestion if not everyone has to use the highway for every trip.

The Multimodel Plan really talks about shifting modes from single-occupancy car use to using more bikes and being able to walk and using mass transit for the local and visitor population.

In order to solve those problems we really have to be creative and look at new ways of making our trips. That gets back to part of my job of looking at the infrastructure of the roads. Is it safe to walk or ride a bike? Where do we need cross walks or where do we need infrastructure so that we can make that choice?

TGI: What about bypass roads between towns?

There is a lot of planning going on with bypass routes. The county is in a feasibility study right now looking at the Hanamaulu-Lihue bypass route. The state DOT is looking at the north section of the Kapaa temporary bypass.

There are definite needs and the bypass route plans look at how we can better serve emergency needs and relieve congestion. We want the main highway to be for longer island trips and for people to use these alternate routes to get in and around the districts or towns.

TGI: How do you address culture, history and the environment in planning?

One thing that is unique to our roads here is that there are so many cultural features and archeological issues with anything, anywhere. It is something that really needs to be addressed and this is an issue.

A lot of funding for county projects comes from the Federal Highway Administration and requires the same environmental impact statement process as the state projects in accordance with state statutes. There is very specific requirements to follow regarding our historic and environmental resources.

TGI: What projects are you excited about?

Some of our bridges like Opaekaa, Puupae and Kapahi are historic and we’re developing a design solution to respect and preserve that history. It’s still in progress but I am excited to see that we are developing a process of working with the community to identify historic and cultural resources that are really valued, and how can we make them safe and work but still maintain that historic value that people really appreciate.

The first thing is to get the bus shelters at all the bus stops for shade and protection from rain. Kauai Bus is looking at expanding service frequency, especially at key times of the day and on key routes. Then we are looking at other service improvements such as GPS buses with displays so you know when the next bus is coming. If its in 30 minutes then you can go do something and come back to make it more convenient.

TGI: What are agricultural needs for roads?

Agricultural transportation related needs are about how do we get food from the farmers to the farmers markets and do we have the infrastructure in place for that to be efficient and successful. If the highways are congested and trucks need them to move produce, then we need to get more vehicles off the highways that are designed for trucks so they can use them and to also design efficient routes.

The transportation piece is important to the success of agriculture. We need to know what is the transportation system and where are the storage facilities and how are they tied into the system. If we are going to export food then we need to know what does that mean in terms of the transportation system?

TGI: What can be done to address fast traffic on residential roads?

We can narrow travel lanes and add medians in some areas and put roundabouts in others to really slow down traffic. We should look at ways to slow the speed without building the volume or congestion.

Stop signs and speed bumps have their issues for emergency response and evacuation and if you put in a four-way stop sign where it’s not needed, then some people will run them. Driving at a slower speed should be a pleasant experience where you want to drive slower because the street is designed to be driven at slower speeds and not making it painful or stressful with speed bumps and stop signs at every intersection.

Another problem is posting a 25 mph speed limit on roads that are designed for 40 mph. People will go 40 mph because it feels comfortable on that road.

We look at traffic calming devices to use and people.

TGI: What would Kauai’s roads look like in a perfect world?

We have several plans in place in various phases. We did a whole design workshop for Poipu Road going through Koloa and the resort area to really improve bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

With no budget limitations I would have all of those roads improved and the same with Kawaihau Road. I would see the island being much more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

The streets should be for everyone and not just for cars. I also see a relationship between our streets and economic and community development.

I see more thriving commercial districts such as Rice Street as an example of a thriving economic center with housing, restaurants and activity day and night. I would like to see those Kauai main streets pop up all over the island.

TGI: What are the challenges to planning with limited space on Kauai?

Everything is interrelated to everything else. In some areas we have topography limitations and there is not room to widen a road to add a bike lane. There are also concerns about rural character and all of these things play into it.

There isn’t one solution that works for every location. It’s not like a cookie-cutter approach where we are going to do the same thing everywhere. We really need to look at each individual location and figure out what is best.

For example, we just did a workshop for Kawaihau Road to look at that as a safe route to school. In some areas there is adequate right-of-way to add sidewalk. There is sidewalk on one side of the street already and we look at the possibility of widening that sidewalk, or putting sidewalks on both sides of the street.

A lot of people object to curbs or gutters in terms of rural character and so one solution is to have a grass area between the sidewalk and the road to maintain that sense of rural feeling and still allow people to walk within the right of way on the street. Another solution is to narrow road width on an existing right of way and have a shared two-way street without a double-yellow line and a striped shoulder for people to walk inside of a limited right of- s a reasonable and acceptable solution when there is no possibility of expansion in a rural area with lower speeds and traffic volume.

At other places like the Kawaihau Spur at the trail connection to the path, we can have a shared use path that is a separate alignment from the road and a better and cheaper solution than using the existing right-of-way.

We just looked at some streets between Puhi and Lihue near Chiefess School where we really don’t need four lanes on that street. We are looking at reducing that to one lane in each direction with left-turn pockets and that leaves an extra lane that we can now stripe as bike lanes on both sides. That is an example of taking the width that we have but reconfiguring the street to work better, slow down traffic and to do a bunch of other things at the same time.

We have this tool box of different kinds of solutions we can do in different places. The bigger picture in terms of long-term planning from a land use perspective I think we really have to look at where do we put different kinds of development. Rather than doing suburban sprawl type of development, which requires wider highways and more lanes because people live out further and it gets more congested, we can do more in-fill development in places that area already developed so that people can live closer to work and kids can live closer to their schools and people don’t have to drive as much in their daily life.

If we look at more mixed-use type development where we combine residential with shopping and office uses then people can live, work and shop all within walking distance. We haven’t really done much of that but I think that is the direction that we have to go from a long-term planning perspective to avoid some of those added costs that come from adding highways and extending fire and police service and all of those things.

If we think that way, then in the long term there is an incredible cost savings for the county and the taxpayers. If we are thinking more along the lines of a compact developing pattern then we are not having to build road infrastructure and additional services for developments that are far away from where we already have development.

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