Time for action on Kauai traffic

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took a short drive up to Papaya’s. As expected, the traffic coming south on the highway began to jam up at the Kuamoo intersection. That wasn’t unusual. But, as we continued north, the backup went on … and on, well past the Safeway intersection. After getting our gluten-free wheat thingies and tree bark granola bars, I opted to take a left out of the parking lot and head north to the bypass, rather than turn right and sit in traffic for who knows how long.

But when I got to the roundabout, there were so many cars doing the same thing, I decided to just keep going and swing around the back side of Sleeping Giant. I soon found out that others had the same idea. But, eventually, we made it back to Lihue. Now imagine that you are a tourist new to Kauai facing the same situation and are forced to sit in traffic for an hour or more. Do you think it might dissuade you from returning in the future? Or what if you’re someone wanting to open a business here? Might you reconsider?

If you haven’t read the comprehensive 359-page “2035 Transportation Plan for Kauai,” published last year, I urge you to. It addresses many of the same issues that have been tossed back and forth on the Forum page.

Then-Governor Abercrombie said this about the plan: “(It) is an important step forward towards ensuring that transportation improvements can be implemented long-term in fiscally responsible and timely fashions”— timely being the operative word here.

A few key points from the plan:

w By 2035, tourism will increase by 20 percent compared to today’s visitors and our population is expected to grow 30 percent.

w “The cost of implementing the full array of capacity solutions to address anticipated deficiences would be approximately $2.1 billion through 2035.”

w “Based on the high estimated cost … the region will need to make hard decisions about where to invest and where to allocate funding.”

According to the report, “… the average daily traffic volumes on Kauai are highest in and around Lihue. The Kuhio Highway currently carries over 36,000 vehicles per day.” The segment from Lihue to Kapaa is already operating at a volume-to-capacity ratio of 1.0 (meaning it can’t sustain any more vehicles), and it has a level of service of F (meaning it’s the lowest possible score). The Kaumualii Highway from Lihue to Kalaheo doesn’t score any better. But cheer up, folks, because it’s only going to get worse. No, wait, it can’t get any worse, because F is the lowest score you can receive … right?

So how are our own civic leaders addressing our little problem? Why they give the green light to developers to build more resorts and housing developments, of course. Infrastructure is left for others to worry about. It’s the proverbial stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach, which has been going on for years — effectively, since Iniki — and it’s slowly draining the life out of our island.

If we can’t efficiently get visitors to and from their hotels, timeshares or resorts, and, likewise, locals to and from businesses and services, then Kauai will not only see a reduction in the tourist business and much of what fuels the economic engine, but it will cease to be a viable place to live, work and play. We are at the tipping point right now and hard decisions have to be made immediately — and I’m not talking band-aid: we need invasive surgery.

First and foremost is the need for a four-lane road beginning where the Kapule and Kuhio Highways intersect and extending to the point in Kapaa where Kawaihau Road meets the highway. To maintain traffic flow, the road would also have to be expanded to five lanes beginning at the point where it crosses the Wailua river (two lanes each way with a single left turn lane in the middle) and continuing on to the Kawaihau intersection. Prior to the Kuhio Highway widening project there would also have to be an expansion of the bypass road to four lanes, which would ease the congestion as construction goes on and serve as an alternate route when the highway work is complete.

There will be difficult issues to resolve in the Wailua/Kapaa corridor where existing buildings would encroach on the widened right of way. Some businesses would have to move temporarily. Others might even be forced to close their doors. A project of this scope will impact and create a living nightmare for many of us for a period of years, but is there any viable alternative?

Jacy L. Youn wrote an excellent story about Kauai’s traffic woes, “Kauai In Crisis,” in Hawaii Business Magazine. In it our mayor was quoted: “I think our forefathers, in their wisdom, created the comprehensive zoning ordinance and designated areas of growth with good intentions … but we’ve since encountered obstacles they didn’t plan for, especially traffic … Our infrastructure cannot handle the volume we already have today, much less an increase in those volumes.”

The mayor? Bryan Baptiste. The year was 2005. We’ve certainly come a long way, haven’t we?

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Steve McMacken is a resident of Lihue.

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