LIHUE — A multi-million dollar project aimed at removing hundreds of invasive trees along a well-traveled section of Kuhio Highway on the North Shore is moving forward.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said the 18-month effort to remove about 2,500 albizia trees from a 1.1-mile section of Kuhio Highway addresses a longstanding safety concern that’s occurring statewide.
“The albizia tree grows very fast and is a very brittle, soft tree,” Sakahara wrote in an email. “As Kuhio Highway is the only link to the North Shore, it is imperative that we remove these trees as they can block or close the roadway. They can also be a hazard to the traveling public as they travel this roadway, as they could fall on your vehicle.”
Some nearby residents, however, say they are worried about how possible road closures may affect the area.
Kilauea Neighborhood Association Director Bill Troutman said a similar effort to remove invasive trees from the side of Kuhio Highway about two years ago caused traffic delays and angered some North Shore business owners.
“To me, that’s going to be a big deal on the North Shore,” Troutman said. “There’s going to be extensive, long delays and we fought it like heck, because last time they took down the trees along there, there were hours of delays along the highway.”
Work on the $3.5 million project began Monday along Kuhio Highway between Kalihiwai and Kalihiholo roads.
Road and lane closures will be necessary as the project progresses.
“The majority of the tree cutting work will be done at night under lane closures when traffic is minimized,” Sakahara said. “Some daytime roadway closures will occur in areas where trees cannot be removed at night due to the complexity or danger of the situation. Advance notification will be given when this occurs.”
Though daytime closures are not expected to happen daily, wait times may last an average of 30 minutes.
State contractors from Earthworks Pacific Inc. in Lihue will be charged with reforesting the area with native vegetation.
Officials are working with local experts to “establish trees that are not invasive, native to Kauai, will not block the view plane, and create an environment that the community and all of our residents can be proud of.”
“The concept is to plant native species that will create enough foliage that the albizia tree will not be able to survive,” Sakahara said. “This is the most environmentally friendly way to accomplish this.”
Ray Kahaunaele, field operations supervisor for the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, said efforts to remove invasive albizia trees from key thoroughfares are important because they have shallow roots and are prone to breaking during high wind events.
“The biggest damage occurred last year when Hurricane Iselle hit the Big Island, where all the albizias blocked many of the roads to the Puna area,” said Kahaunaele, who noted that the invasive trees can grow 10 to 12 feet each year. “That kind of spurred the movement on all islands to look at the albizia and try to make a difference.”
It’s an issue that DOT officials are trying to control on Kauai.
“The numbers continue to grow at an alarming rate,” Sakahara said.
Although tree cutting work is estimated to last about nine months, the entire project is slated to take about 18 months. It may need to be extended due to the fledging season of two endangered species — the Hawaiian hoary bat and Newell’s shearwater — which last from June until December.
“We are currently working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to mitigate our actions so that work could continue through the summer season without harming any endangered species while balancing the needs of the community and traveling public,” Sakahara said.
Kilauea Neighborhood Association President Yoshito L’Hote said many residents are pleased that the work is being done but were caught off guard when work started sooner than they had expected.
“As far as traffic goes, they really listened to us and really made as much effort as they could to alleviate the congestion,” L’Hote said. “The only negative thing is that they were ready to go and didn’t really notify any of the handful of neighbors who are directly affected by the night work.”