Cones and the status quo

LIHUE — For Eastside morning commuters, driving on Kuhio Highway from Wailua to the airport can be a stop-and-go frustration that adds plenty of extra minutes to the miles.

Whether contraflow — the cones set out to reroute traffic lanes — helps or harms that commute depends on whom you ask.

But one thing is clear, the setup isn’t likely to change for the next several years.

“Traffic between Lihue and through Kapaa town is nonsense,” said Genora Woodruff of Wailua Homesteads, a former taxi driver who doesn’t think contraflow is the answer to traffic problems. “They need to make a four-lane highway from Lihue through Kapaa because it’s the most traveled part of the island. If I could write funny, I could write a book about, “How to make it harder to drive on Kauai.”

While a lane widening project is on tap for the Eastside in a few years, it won’t change the contraflow traffic program. The program to help ease Eastside congestion is a short-term solution that will likely keep going into the foreseeable future as long-term highway projects will take several years to finish, officials said.

“These contraflow operations are the most effective in utilizing existing lanes by making lane directions reversible, all without extensive costs and impacts to communities that highway widening would bring,” said DOT information specialist Sondra Brown.

Contraflow lane reversals are marked by orange traffic cones and take one northbound lane on the highway and give it to southbound commuters from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. It is 100 percent state funded by the Department of Transportation’s Highways Division, at a cost of about $3,000 per weekday, and $3,700 on Saturdays, another day they run the cones.

For the long term, Brown said the ongoing DOT projects include the widening of Kuhio Highway along the Wailua Beach area, and a Kapaa transportation circulation study.

But the widening project won’t start until late 2015 at the earliest, and once it’s completed, it won’t change the contraflow set up.

“Generally, we concur with the state DOT that the contraflow program is a cost-effective traffic mitigation measure in the short term,” said County Engineer Larry Dill. “The state has convened a task force including county representation to plan for permanent solutions to address traffic issues on the Eastside.”

The County of Kauai works closely with the DOT on its Long Range Multi-Modal Transportation Plan, Dill said.

Some commuters say the program really helps move things along.

Veronica Pablo, of Kapahe, said she likes the contraflow and describes the traffic on the days without it as “horrendous.”

“It takes a long time to get through and I am all for the contraflow,” Pablo said. “The Eastside traffic is especially slow when trying to get to Lihue.”

Crystal Belmonte, of Kilauea, said that when she goes to Lihue, it will only be during the hours that contraflow is operational. She also uses the Kapaa bypass

“I live on the North Shore and I wouldn’t be traveling if they didn’t have the cones,” Belmonte said. “I won’t drive after 1 p.m., by then the traffic is just too bad.”

But is it sustainable, some wonder.

Frank Kelso, of Kapaa, said the contraflow is a good “quick fix” solution to a comprehensive land development issue. He would like to see the discussion start again about developing more affordable housing and an alternative route via the roundabout and bypass area.

“The population is only going to grow and these are things that need to be addressed now,” Kelso said.

When it comes to the number of cars, it’s no wonder congestion may feel a little tighter than years past.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles reports there were 94,022 vehicles registered on Kauai in 2013. That was a 4.66 percent increase over 2012 with 89,179, which had increased 8.25 percent over the 81,917 vehicles registered in 2011.

The numbers had fallen the previous three years of the down economy with 77,389 in 2010, and 77,606 in 2009 and 77,989 in 2010.

The county does not see a need to implement contraflow on any county roads, as it is designed for use on multilane roadways that the county doesn’t have, Dill said.

The traffic counts on state highways which prompted the contraflow solution are significantly greater.

“Those that we do have, such as Rice Street, don’t have a problem with congestion,” he said.

As for contraflow, some say if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, while others just accept it for what it is, — good, bad or indifferent.

Erwin Garcia of Kapaa also uses the contraflow to get to work at the Aqua Kauai Beach Resort near the airport.

“I love it,” Garcia said. “It’s always been there to help me get to work on time. There’s not much to change because I think it’s perfect the way it is. It really is perfect because it’s always been there when I needed it.”

Maile Yamamoto and Mary Lou Mendes said they didn’t want to deal with the Eastside traffic and found jobs closer to home.

“I just accept it (the traffic situation),” Yamamoto said. “I work close so I don’t worry about it. But the contraflow has always been there. I guess it helps a little bit.”

Dennis Fujimoto contributed to this report

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Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0424 or by emailing tlaventure@thegardenisland.com.

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