The state Department of Transportation has circulated a draft plan to reduce the number of convoy runs to escort residents of the Haena-Wainiha area over the closed portion of Kuhio Highway and told community leaders the highway may close completely on weekends for six to nine weeks.
The convoy system currently includes seven round trips per day between Waikoko and Wainha during the week and 13 per day on weekends. For many residents of the area heavily devastated by the April storm, convoys have represented their primary means of getting to and from their homes.
On Tuesday, a DOT spokesperson said that what is in circulation “is a draft plan for consideration. It is not the final schedule.”
Residents who have scrutinized the newly surfaced outline said that, on weekends when the highway is completely closed, there would be some transportation available by “ferry,” but it was not clear what that term meant in this context.
Later in the day, DOT appeared to backpedal.
“We have not finalized the convoy schedule with the considerations to the bridge replacements at Waikoko and Waipa and the bridge rehabilitation at Waioli,” said spokesperson Shelly Kunishige “and it would be premature” to speculate on “the removal of any specific roundtrips or use of a ferry system.”
“Ferry system” remained undefined.
Kunishige insisted that DOT still hopes to complete the repair work by sometime in October. It is not certain when the related bridge replacement project will begin.
A DOT web page that offers a current spreadsheet of the various projects under way shows that five of 15 projects were partially or completely still in the permitting stage. Two of the projects are listed as in a “geotechnical boring” stage, suggesting that engineering evaluations and formulations of plans are not yet complete.
At several of the locations, undermined sections of roadway must be reconstructed, with stabilization of the slopes above to come later. However, without slope stabilization, the highway would still not be safe, according to a DOT engineer. In at least one location, the storm opened new drainage channels on the hillside, which may require culverts or other means of removing water from the roadway to be designed and constructed.
State officials have generally said there are three sites where the highway suffered massive damage. However, a fourth site, close to Wainiha, was identified where a retaining wall below the roadway had been under construction, but apparently failed in the storm. In another location, reinforcing the roadway from the makai side of the highway may not be possible, necessitating carving a short new roadway path into the hillside.
A reporter who traveled to and from Kee over the weekend noticed that both of those sites appeared to have not been currently subject of any work, but it was not clear whether anything had been done below the highway. Stopping during the convoys is not permitted and any observations are limited to those made in passing from a moving vehicle.
Several of the repair sites show evidence of major shifting in slopes above the roadway and will require pins to be driven into the hillside and covered with mesh. In other locations, retaining walls may have to be constructed.
Over the weekend, residents in Haena said they were taken aback to learn that changes in the convoy system may be imminent, but county officials suggested it was not entirely unexpected. County public information officer Sarah Blane said “any convoy schedule change will be related to bridge work. The best I know is things will stay status quo through the end of the month.”
The convoys are necessary because storm damage to the highway was so extensive that parts of it are impassable and work crews doing repairs need minimal interruptions at sites that are under construction. The surviving roadway is less than 10 feet wide at some points. There are several places on the roadway where a vehicle traveling alone might slip over the side without anyone knowing the incident had occurred.
Further restrictions on roadway access had been seen as inevitable since the April 13-15 storm and flooding. The disaster struck as DOT was also preparing to replace three one-lane bridges on Kuhio Highway, including the spans at Waikoko, Waipa and Waoli streams. The three bridges had been scheduled for replacement or reconstruction but their status has became even more critical because is also replacing three temporary bridges in Wainiha. That project has been in the planning stage for several years.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the three Wainiha bridges will require delivery of materials far heavier than what any of the other three bridges can handle. Those three must be crossed to get to the Wainiha site so the Wainiha project can’t begin until the remaining spans are complete. In public meetings during the planning process for the Wainiha stream project, state officials had made clear that traffic would be restricted and the highway closed entirely on several occasions.
The fact that the situation on the highway will inevitably get worse before it finally gets better was a reality the community had seemed to forget.
The situation was complicated before the storm, but became far more so after the damage toll from the rains and flooding was evaluated. The entire area has been closed to all but residents by two emergency orders signed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho. Several weeks ago, DOT said the repair portion of the project could be completed and the highway reopened to traffic by October.
DOT did not respond Tuesday to questions about whether there is a revised timeline and projected completion farther into the future.
But the plan circulated via text message on Tuesday describing the convoy limitations and potential weekend closures still caught many in the Hanalei community by surprise. Tuesday’s text message said the new plan may go into effect early next month.
Joel Guy, president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association, said his group had not been informed in advance of the new limitations. The short notice may make it difficult for many residents to maintain their employment and for children to get to school. The Wainiha-Haena corridor has an estimated population of 430, but it is not known how many are currently residing there.
“There are so many moving pieces to this that it’s been very hard to understand,” he said. “We’re just asking DOT to give us a seat at the table to plan this process. Right now, nobody is speaking for the community.”
Guy said the community association had expected to have a role in planning for minimizing disruptions, and without resident support, any plan “is not going to be the best decision for the community.”
The situation is likely to become more complicated when children return to school in August. The state Department of Education initially assigned a teacher to run interim classes when the Wainiha-Haena area was completely cut off after the storm. But the teacher was transferred back to Hanalei School and it remained unclear how elementary students would get there.
Middle school and high school age students have an even more daunting challenge since their schools are in Kapaa. Residents said over the weekend that some children in those age categories were relying on online classes.
The existing convoy schedule, in which trips begin at 6 a.m. and run intermittently until 11 p.m., has still posed employment problems for residents since it is difficult to coordinate work hours with the convoy schedule.
Workers with a utility company said the convoy system means their crews can get stuck in Wainiha for hours in the afternoon if they are unable to complete a project as originally planned.