LIHUE — Drivers might be experiencing some frustration cruising along Rice Street right now but rest assured, it won’t last forever, county officials said. And once the work is complete, which is expected to be around February or March 2020 (weather permitting), they said it will be a much better situation.
Consider it growing pains, said Michael Moule, the county’s chief of engineering.
“It’s not pretty yet,” said County Transportation Planner Lee Steinmetz.
But it will be, he said.
“I want to assure people that the traffic we’re having during construction isn’t reflective of what it will be like when it’s done,” Steinmetz said.
The current construction on Rice Street is part of the Lihue Town Core Mobility and Revitalization project, made possible through a more than $13 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that the county was awarded in 2015—a feat that is allegedly more difficult than getting into a top U.S. university and “pretty amazing,” Moule said.
“The fact that little Kauai got the grant was huge,” said Douglas Haigh, the county’s building division chief.
The grant has also contributed to refurbishing other nearby areas, including Eiwa Street that runs adjacent to the Historic County Building, and Hoolako Street that travels from the Ace Hardware parking lot to Vidinha Stadium, all in an effort to revamp Lihue and make it safer for pedestrians and drivers.
The sprucing up of Rice Street, which consists of demolition and grading for larger sidewalks and roadway reconstruction, is part of an “economic development project” designed to stimulate business in the area and make it more of a “destination” rather than a place people use to get somewhere else, Haigh said.
“The whole island sees Lihue as the heart of Kauai,” he said. “Rice Street is the heart of the heart.”
The county seat is nestled in Lihue along with banks, state offices and other services vital to the community, he said. What’s happening right now is meant to tie all those places together in a more cohesive, safe format, and encourage people to park in one spot and walk to all their errands without the fear of getting hit by speeding cars — a concern that was raised by community members who completed surveys prior to construction.
“You feel like you’re taking your life in your hands,” said Steinmetz, regarding the current situation and braving a walk across the street.
Rice Street will transition from its former four lanes with intermittent parking to three lanes–two will consistently flow with traffic in either direction and one will be a center, left-hand turning lane. There will also be a handful of permanent off-street parking spaces that are tucked into pockets near intersections that will not interfere with moving traffic.
In other words, the combination of a more accommodating sidewalk, which will be widened in some places, enhanced parking lots and a lane specifically dedicated to left-hand turns, should make people feel more comfortable parking and walking in the area, further easing traffic woes, Steinmetz said.
“Rather than driving to every single errand you ever do,” he said.
The finished product should also eliminate the “weaving” of cars trying to avoid drivers turning left, as well as parked vehicles, Steinmetz said.
“Even though there are fewer lanes, it’s more efficient,” he said.
Currently, construction on Rice Street is happening along the eastbound lane and will head toward Hoolako Street before turning around to come back the opposite direction, westward, toward Haleko Road.
There is one area of concern, however, that might need adjustments and will be monitored as the project continues. It’s at Haleko Road, where drivers traveling west on Rice Street often turn left.
The hot spot is also near Bank of Hawaii, the U.S. Post Office and the Lihue Civic Center, where congestion frequently occurs. County officials said they might have to lengthen the left turn lane onto Haleko Road and prohibit left-hand eastbound turns into the Lihue Civic Center, Steinmetz said.
“It’s one thing we’re going to watch very closely,” Moule said.
Another concern that community members have brought up is in regards to “undesirable behaviors” around Lihue that might cause people to forgo walking. But Steinmetz said that even though the homeless situation is a problem that’s much larger than the project, once construction is completed, it will create less of a “vacuum place.”
“The more you have activity in a place; the more things are going on, the less you have those issues,” he said.
Other issues have presented themselves since construction began earlier this year that have required mitigation and caused some unexpected delay.
“It’s never going to be 100 percent,” Haigh said in regards to going from a two-dimensional plan on paper to something fully viable.
“Finding things underground that you wouldn’t have expected,” said Moule, in explanation of some of the hurdles they have had to leap.
That’s why the county assembled the team that they did in order to work cohesively and remedy issues based upon their own unique, individual expertise, Haigh said.
“On a daily basis we analyze what’s going on,” he said.
“We have to do it right,” said Haigh, adding that they also have to stay within the budget.
The primary county officials who have been working closely together on the project are Haigh, Moule, Steinmetz and County Civil Engineer Joel Bautista.
“Sometimes we pound heads but we’re all working together to get it all done,” Haigh said.
They are also trying to minimize the impact on businesses in the area, which are remaining open during construction.
Steinmetz added that it’s been great to see businesses come together and collaborate with the county to rehabilitate the area, and he’s inspired by groups like Rice Street Business Association, established to encourage more growth, functionality and beautification.
“What’s gratifying for me is seeing them take ownership of what is their place,” Steinmetz said.
Haigh has worked for the county almost three decades and said this project is the first time he’s experienced multiple county agencies coming together for something of this nature, starting years ago with the grant process.
“There was this heart and soul from the county already invested,” he said.
And while each one of the project’s primary players said it’s hard to visualize now, the project will soon make sense and become functional. Rehabilitated buildings, better traffic flow, walkable pathways and safer spaces will merge to make Lihue town core a more desirable location for everyone, they said.
Coco Zickos, county reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or email@example.com.