HAENA — Kuhio Highway west of Hanalei — closed and accessible only to residents since last year’s disastrous storms — is tentatively set to reopen on or about May 1, but continuing restrictions will make actually using the highway challenging for both residents and visitors.
For the first month the highway is back in operation, Haena State Park — gateway to Ke‘e Beach and the Kalalau Trail — will remain closed entirely, as state park officials hurry to finish a reconstruction of park facilities that will cut the number of visitors allowed to go there from 2,000 to 900 each day.
Details of the phased reopening of the highway were presented Tuesday night at a contentious meeting of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association, attended by top county and state officials.
Chipper Wichman, a top association official and former executive director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and Joel Guy, president of the community association, made a joint presentation.
Officials of the Hawaii Department of Transportation and state Department of Land and Natural Resources answered questions, along with state Rep. Nadine Nakamura. Nakamura sponsored pending legislation to increase parking fines in the area from Wainiha to Haena from $35 to a minimum of $200 to deter rampant no parking abuses by tourists. The measure has passed both the House and Senate and awaits action by a conference committee before final passage.
About 250 people attended the meeting at the Opakapaka Grill and Bar in Haena, which, with the adjoining Hanalei Colony Resort, has served as a de facto community center since the flood disasters of April and May last year.
Under the plan, repairs to numerous landslide and road collapse areas will be largely complete by May 1, allowing a convoy system in use since shortly after the disaster to be abandoned. However, from reopening until June 4, when a new shuttle system is scheduled to go into operation, strict limitations will be in effect to discourage visitors from venturing to Haena.
As part of a public education strategy, promotional materials will be widely disseminated — including at all rental car pickup locations — warning that:
w The convoy system that has controlled access to the area for months will be discontinued and restrictions that have closed the area to traffic other than vehicles of residents and people with legitimate business on the Haena corridor will be lifted. The highway will technically be open to public traffic.
w Replacement of three single-lane bridges between Hanalei and Haena — work nominally separate from the highway repairs but which has been occurring simultaneously — will continue. However, heavy traffic congestion is anticipated as DOT substitutes flagged access through each of the three individual bridge worksites. A flier to be distributed to tourists warns, in large black letters: “EXPECT SIGNIFICANT TRAFFIC DELAYS.”
w Haena State Park, including Ke‘e Beach and the Kalalau Trail entry point will remain closed, with virtually the entire highway west from Haena Place to the end of the road posted for no parking. Signage will stress that the new $200 parking fine is a minimum penalty. Fine revenues will be divided between DOT and the Kauai Police Department. Funding has been secured from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to provide for special parking enforcement for at least a year. If necessary, the no parking zone may be extended as far east as the Hanalei Colony Resort. Tickets will be issued by uniformed officers of DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), as well as the Kauai Police Department.
w Haena Beach Park will also be closed, with no parking permitted.
w Limahuli Garden will remain closed, with parking prohibited, as will as all other public parks and facilities in the corridor.
w However, limited parking for surfers and fisher folk will be available in special zones, and one-hour parking at cold pond, at the entrance to Haena park, will be permitted.
w The checkpoint near Hanalei that has existed throughout the convoy system’s duration will remain operational, but passing the checkpoint will be permitted. Staff may discourage tourists from continuing, but they will not be prohibited from using the road.
The arrangement is necessitated, Wichman and Guy said, because of the federal government’s majority role in funding reconstruction of the highway, which comes with a condition that full public access must be permitted once the road officially reopens.
Guy, who also heads the Hanalei Initiative, a nonprofit formed to plan for a shuttle service to be available for residents and visitors, said operators are in the process of being selected and the service is scheduled to start on June 4 on a route from Princeville to Ke‘e Beach. At the same time, a newly rebuilt parking lot at Haena State Park will go into service with capacity limited to 100 cars and spots available to tourists by reservation only. Residents will have any-time access to the parking facility.
When the shuttle route opens, a park-and-ride facility will be opened at the Waipa Foundation in Hanalei. However, Guy said negotiations have begun with owners of the Princeville Shopping Center to open a permanent park-and-ride lot near the Foodland store there, which would permit phasing out the Waipa site. Guy said this process is expected to take at least six months.
The shuttle route will begin from a central staging point in Princeville, to which hotel and condo operators will be asked to deliver passengers in their own shuttle vehicles. Shuttle tickets will be $11 for tourists, Guy said, $2 for locals. Kauai Bus passes will be accepted.
The atmosphere at Tuesday’s meeting was tense, but not hostile, though many community members made clear their reservations about any plan to reopen the road to the public. Typical was that of Louise Sausen, who delivered the pule at the start of the meeting.
“Just because I’m doing this pule doesn’t mean I agree with what’s happening,” Sausen said, to murmurs of agreement throughout the audience. “We all understand the problems.”
Wichman said the highway reopening plan reflects a growing awareness, by HTA and others, that managing tourism has become more important than marketing it.
“We are beyond capacity,” he said.
He and Guy agreed on the importance of managing expectations of residents, as well.
“We know this will not all go as planned from day one,” Wichman said.
He noted that, even a successful shuttle operation may — in and of itself — only reduce the estimated traffic volume on the highway of 3,400 cars a day by only about 100 vehicles.
“This is a small step in the right direction,” Guy said. “Not every visitor is going to get to go to Haena every time they want. Things have to change.”
However, Wichman said, the objective of the new plan is to “never turn away a resident” from access to the area or parking at Ke‘e Beach. “The goal is to try to deter visitors.”
Guy captured the mood of the crowd when he said, “we can all sit here and gripe all night long,” but “the bad news will be if our plan doesn’t work. If not, we are going to have significant delays” for all users of the highway.
He drew laughs when he observed: “I can almost guarantee the first week will be a disaster.”
Longtime news reporter and communications executive Allan Parachini lives and makes furniture in Kilauea.