Stuck in limbo

WAILUA HOMESTEADS — In the days before statehood, there were no clear distinctions between island roads that were maintained by the territorial government and individual counties.

That changed in 1963 — four years after Hawaii was admitted as a state — when state lawmakers attempted to divvy up ownership of the roads between the state Department of Transportation and Hawaii’s five individual counties, including the County of Kauai.

Though the effort kicked off the process of transferring all county roads, and the responsibility of maintaining them, to individual counties, the question remained: Which roads, apart from state-owned and maintained highways, are considered to be county roads?

The gray area remains today, where the aptly named roads in limbo still puzzles some officials in terms of who should pay for them. And must either the state or county be compelled to accept road ownership, even if the roads are in substandard condition? 

“The Hawaii DOT’s position is that we have jurisdiction for only the roads on the state highway system,” state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter wrote in an email. “All other public roads are under the counties. Most of the roads outside of the state highway system are maintained by the counties.”

In all, there are 60 stretches of roads — distributed across Kauai between Hanalei and Mana — that are, either as a whole or in part, not formally owned by the state or the county, according to the county Department of Public Works.  

So the responsibility for maintaining these roads in limbo, as they are formally classified, is up in the air.  

“Many of the roads in limbo are private or old paper roads that are not up to engineering standards and carry considerable liability risks,” Sluyter wrote. “These liability risks are issues that the counties have to each weigh in accordingly.” 

Wailua Homesteads resident Vel Alahan lives on one of them: Kaholalele Road.

Alahan, who has lived on the 0.4-mile long road for five years, said he cannot remember a time when either the county or the state came to pave the street in front of his home — apart from the sporadic times when patch work happens.

“The roads are in pretty good shape up here because we don’t get tons of traffic on a daily basis,” Alahan said. “To be honest, there are spots here where water is percolating up through the road, even when it’s not raining.” 

Joe Ward, who lives on the other end of Kaholalele Road, said potholes in his subdivision are occasionally filled but added that he hasn’t had any significant issues on the street fronting his home.

“The roads are a mess here on Kauai,” Ward said. “They’re not surfaced quickly, I don’t think. I’ve traveled to the other islands and it seems to me they take care of their roads a lot more.”

County Engineer Larry Dill said the state Department of Transportation owns principal arterial roads, such as Kuhio Highway, Kaumualii Highway, Kapule Highway, Ahukini Road, while the county owns most of the remaining roads, except for private ones like those in Princeville or Kukuiula.

Some county roadways, however, fall into a gray area, since the Kauai County Council never formally accepted ownership of them.

“There are still many roads in limbo out there, and because they’re in limbo, neither party is overly willing to maintain these roads — that is an ongoing problem,” Dill said at a recent Kauai Board of Relators membership meeting. “This creates a lot of problems for us, because as the Department of Public Works, we get calls from constituents wanting us to maintain the roads and repair potholes but we are reluctant, to be perfectly honest, if it is a road in limbo, because once we start doing that, we’ve made an indication to the state on the status of the road — we’d treat it like we own it. It’s not an easy decision for us to make.” 

Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa, D, Koloa-Niihau, said the latest effort to resolve the dispute dates back to 2012, when state lawmakers directed the state Department of Transportation to convene a working group with county officials.

“Regardless of whether the state or the county has the superior legal authority to determine which roads are legally owned by either, the subject roads continue to deteriorate as the years go by, which has been the case for decades,” the legislation reads.

The meeting ended, according to a 2013 report submitted to the state lawmakers, in a stalemate “with all parties agreeing to consult legal counsel regarding the possibilities of having the ownership or jurisdiction issues settled by judicial-administrative ruling.”

“There is no easy resolution to this matter, however, HDOT has been and continues to work with legislators and the counties on this issue,” Sluyter wrote in an email.


Kauai Roads in Limbo 

  • Old School House Road in Hanalei
  • Ohiki Road in Hanalei
  • Ahiahi Road in Kapahi
  • Akulikuli Road in Kapahi
  • Kaholalele Road in Wailua
  • Wilcox Road in Nawiliwili
  • Hulemalu Road in Niumalu
  • Kipu Road in Kipu
  • Hapa Road (portion) in Koloa
  • Puni Road in Koloa
  • Kapau Road in Koloa
  • Puuwai Road (portion) in Kalaheo
  • Lae Road in Kalaheo
  • Ihu Road in Kalaheo
  • Umiumi Road in Kalaheo
  • Lihilihi Road in Kalaheo
  • Kalo Road in Waimea
  • Menehune Road (portion) in Waimea
  • Iwipolena Road (portion) in Kekaha
  • Lower Saki Mana Road in Mana

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