Traffic problems start and end with us

Almost like clockwork, whenever the issue of traffic congestion arises (think “Kapaa Crawl”), an idea will be put forth that can be distilled into a public policy sentiment of: “Kill the tourists.”

The proposal du jour is to impose a cap on the number of rental cars permitted on Kauai. I’ve even heard a variant — suggested seriously at a Kilauea Neighborhood Association meeting last year — that a tollbooth should be installed at the airport to collect a $10 payment from every visitor-driven rental car.

The premise is that visitors are behind our traffic congestion woes and that, if only tourists could be slammed with limitations on rental cars, all of these problems would magically disappear.

It’s a solution of beautiful simplicity and requires local residents do nothing to address the congestion problem because it’s not their fault.

Like most simplistic political solutions, this one starts to disintegrate when it is subjected to scrutiny. To start that process, I asked the Kauai County Office of Economic Development for some actual, hard numbers on rental cars on the island.

It turns out that, on any given day, there are between 9,000 and 10,000 rental cars here — a figure that can fluctuate by an average of 2,000 rental cars, since the companies move vehicles to and from Kauai seasonally to respond to demand. The figure is up from between 6,900 and 7,600 in 2013, according to the Office of Economic Development.

But if the question is the total number of motor vehicles registered on Kauai — regardless of use as a rental — it may come as a surprise that the actual total of vehicles has dropped in each of the last two full years. Motor vehicle registrations peaked on Kauai in 2013, at 94,022, before declining 5.29 percent in 2014 and another 4.16 percent last year to 85,342.

In other words, the number of rental cars does not appear to have materially influenced what is universally recognized as an island-wide traffic congestion problem. To resolve this problem, which affects every one of us in one way or another, we will have to take far more of an “all of the above” public policy approach, including some or all of the following:

w Kapaa has become the most populous town on Kauai with the most notorious bottleneck and is the most daunting challenge. Widening Kuhio Highway through Kapaa would necessitate demolition of much of the business district — an option that is not viable in any respect. But that doesn’t mean that the Kapaa Crawl can’t be mitigated.

One approach would require that the state Department of Transportation install a computerized traffic signal system throughout Kapaa that would coordinate the lights to maintain a steady flow of actually moving traffic. It would be hugely expensive, but that’s not why the DOH hesitates to install it. “The technology exists, but with all technology, you need the expertise to operate and maintain the system,” a traffic engineer told me a few months ago. “We do not currently have the infrastructure or the personnel to manage such a system.” Logical next step: The community should start convincing the highway department that Kauai can’t afford to NOT have this technology.

w The multi-use path that runs in fits and starts from Kapaa north gets its share of abuse as a boondoggle and waste of public funds. It is neither. It could play as significant a role in a complex multi-approach solution as improving road maintenance. If you drive past the path on any given day, you already know that it is heavily used.

It could also play a significant future role in alleviating congestion with the completion of the proposed path extension from Kilauea to Princeville. In addition to opening up a meaningful new commute route, the North Shore extension could serve as emergency access if the highway was cut off in a natural or man-made disaster isolating the entire North Shore. The path will someday be widely recognized as one of the signature achievements of Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.

w Car sharing services like Zipcar could also be of great value if fleets of such vehicles were stationed at major resort hotels as a transportation alternative for visitors for whom the Kauai Bus or shuttle systems don’t provide enough options for tourists, as County Council Chairman Mel Rapozo observed recently, to explore our wonderful island at their own pace.

Zipcar, a company spokesperson said, already operates a fleet of five vehicles at the Pacific Beach Hotel on Oahu — an approach that could be expanded enormously statewide if the company, or a competitor, got serious about marketing it. Zipcar claims that each of its shared cars substitutes for 13 individually owned vehicles.

w Although its usefulness to tourists is limited, the Kauai Bus system — which could be augmented by an extensive new network of shuttles under a plan currently in development — has great still untapped potential. The bus today makes a laudable effort to help keep the island moving, but its infrequent service and route limitations mean that it can’t reach its full potential without expansion. Although the economics of the shuttle concept are, at best, theoretical, this is a time to try new solutions, even if the payoff is not immediate.

w A ride-sharing scheme that designates pickup points where people with transportation offer rides to those who need them represents a concept that Kauai has not yet attempted, despite the fact that such systems work well in Mainland cities that use them. Whatever island-style version developed here would obviously reflect Kauai’s unique rural character. Established patterns of hitchhiking on Kauai demonstrate every day that the concept has value.

We need to stop blaming visitors for congestion that is largely of our own doing. That will mean that we all have to participate in the process of finding solutions and making them work.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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