Hunt begins for funding to realign highway

OLOWALU – With a seawall now out of the picture in Olowalu, community members and officials are renewing the hunt for funding to realign Honoapiilani Highway, which sits dangerously close to the West Maui shoreline in places. But with recent laws limiting the state Department of Transportation to a fixed amount of federal funds, officials said the community will have to get creative.

On Monday, the state announced that it would halt plans to build a 900-foot seawall in Olowalu, after months of community opposition and protests that included residents camping out on the construction site.

For the time being, the state will restripe and repair existing revetments and move the lanes on the mauka side of the roadway farther away from the surf. That will give the state, the county and the community at least three years to plan out long-term solutions. One of the most pressing obstacles is money.

The state has estimated that it would cost around $800 million to realign and widen Honoapiilani Highway from Maalaea to the Lahaina bypass. Because it’s a state highway, Mayor Alan Arakawa said funding should come from the state.

However, the state Department of Transportation does not receive as much federal funding as it did several years ago, said Ed Sniffen, deputy director of the department’s Highways Division.

When Sen. Daniel Inouye was in office, he was able to bring Hawaii’s highways even more funding than the $150 million it normally gets each year. But since new legislation, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, went into effect last December, states are given a certain amount each year and cannot seek additional funding.

“Without another funding stream . . . any additional roadway is pretty much on a moratorium,” Sniffen said.

Thus, the state department has been focusing on repairing and protecting what it already has, instead of large-scale building and construction projects. Sniffen explained that the state Department of Transportation does not get its funding from income taxes like many other departments, but instead from user fees like weight taxes, state registration fees and fuel taxes.

Arakawa pointed out that the county has tried to ease the burden on the state by purchasing land in West Maui, including 100 acres at Ukumehame and 147 in Launiupoko. Sniffen said the state appreciated the county’s actions, but that they made up a “very small portion of what the overall cost is going to be.”

“There’s been a lot of projects on the books for 40 years,” he said. “A lot of projects on all islands . . . that the state itself cannot afford.”

Arakawa said Sniffen was right, but that “40 years is a long time to wait for the appropriate funding.”

Sniffen said alternative funding sources could come from the county or from organizations like FEMA and the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the county could enact a general excise tax, which is what the City and County of Honolulu did to fund its controversial rail project.

Arakawa said his administration sent a proposal for general excise tax to the council, but that it was never heard.

Council Member Don Couch said he wasn’t sure if the proposal would come back to the council in the future, but in the meantime, he said there’s “a lot of potential for federal funds.” Recently, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California came to visit and called the need for repairs “a no brainer.”

“If we’ve got that high of a level of people saying that’s a no-brainer, help (the department) with the funding,” Couch said.

Tiare Lawrence, who represented community-based hui Malama Olowalu, said the community would do its part, from advocating during the next legislative session to collecting data from marine experts to provide to lawmakers. Since the area is critical monk seal habitat, there’s a chance that organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association can lend a hand, she added.

Officials have asked why the community didn’t bring up the seawall issue in the past. The project originally got county permits in 2010. Even though the county was opposed to hardening the coastline, it “had to do something to protect the road” in the interim, Arakawa said. Residents didn’t realize the impacts until emergency seawalls were installed in other locations around West Maui, Lawrence said.

“It wasn’t till 2012 that we saw Ukumehame Beach destroyed that we realized that we can’t let this continue happening,” Lawrence said. “We learned from that mistake.”

She said Maui’s recently formed Metropolitan Planning Organization played an important role in allowing residents and government officials to connect and have discussions on the issue.

While the state “cannot presuppose” any alternatives moving forward, Sniffen said many options have been brought up.

Some have talked about redirecting traffic to the old cane haul road adjacent to the highway near Olowalu. Arakawa said solutions have been floating around the community for decades.

“I appreciate that we finally get some resolution instead of hardening the coastline,” he said. “But we should’ve moved the road inland a long time ago. . . . It’s time for the state to really do a permanent fix.”

Sniffen said the department isn’t ruling out seawalls statewide after Olowalu. Each site requires a different solution, he said. However, he added that the department will continue to follow environmental process and work with the community.

Residents have been camped out at the construction site near Milepost 16 on Honoapiilani Highway for around eight days. Lawrence said a couple hundred people have passed through to bring food, camp and talk story, including a class from Maui Preparatory Academy.

“I’m here for the reefs,” Wailuku resident George Burnette said. “The reefs have so many stressors – global warming, sediment. Building a seawall, it’s just too much.”

Sitting on beach chairs under a makeshift tent Tuesday, campers talked about what they envisioned for West Maui’s future. Much of the shoreline from Lahaina to Honolua has already been swallowed up by hotels and mansions, and the community has to protect what’s left from Lahaina to Ukumehame, Lawrence said.

“We want to improve public access for future generations,” Honokowai resident Kai Nishiki said.

Nishiki and Lawrence said they’ve seen people crossing the highway with their surfboards, and that the shore is so close to the road that they have to be extra cautious with their children.

Most agreed that the “big prize” would be the Pali-to-Puamana Parkway, an ongoing plan for a beachfront parkway that could be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

“That’s where everybody wins,” Lawrence said. “We win economically and environmentally. Our beaches win. Our children win.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at