Bridge repair proposal will cut off Piilani Highway access to Kaupo

Work is estimated to take at least three weeks

Piilani Highway’s closure over three weeks next summer for bridge repairs is not sitting well with East Maui residents who rely on the road to get to medical appointments and do grocery shopping in Central Maui.

In a letter to the Kaupo Community Association last month, Maui County’s Department of Public Works said it reviewed six options to allow some traffic to pass through Piilani Highway on the southern flank of Haleakala, but safety concerns, costs and permitting issues ruled out those alternatives. Some of those options would add as much as $500,000 to the project and could delay it for two years, the county said.

The county said repairs are needed for the Waiopai Bridge in Kaupo, located between Mileposts 28 and 29 on Piilani Highway. Last year, an inspection showed that “bridge elements were substandard and in poor condition.”

The Maui County Council has approved $1.5 million for the project. The county anticipates advertising for bids from contractors later this year.

The letter says the county considered written comments from 13 individuals following a July meeting with the Kaupo Community Association. Oral comments were heard at the meeting.

“Weighing the available budgeted funds, safety concerns, timeline and impact to residents, the project will include a traditional concrete deck demolition and reconstruction. This is the most efficient, safe and fiscally responsible use of public funds,” the county said in the letter. “We recognize the inconvenience to residents who use this section of Piilani Highway on a daily basis, and thus have made it a priority to alert all impacted individuals as soon as possible.”

In the letter, the county says it has met with fire, police, ambulance, emergency management and Haleakala National Park officials to discuss highway closure impacts, with several agencies noting that adjustments to the Makawao and Hana district service areas will be needed. But there would be no anticipated loss of service from the affected agencies.

Public Works officials pledged to require a communication plan between the project contractor and the first-responder agencies. Public Works and county Emergency Management Agency officials are developing a contingency plan for emergency road closures along Hana Highway.

But community members are not pleased.

“It would be devastating,” said Kaupo resident Linda Domen, proprietor of Kaupo Store, which caters to tourists and residents traveling the remote section of Piilani Highway.

“It would be really bad. We are struggling as it is,” Domen said.

She worried about what would happen if there were an emergency and area residents needed to get to town.

Domen said going through Hana adds an hour of commuting time, making it a 2¢-hour drive to Central Maui, if Piilani Highway were closed.

She also asked whether residents could use, again, a bypass area on the makai side of the bridge to get around the planned repair project.

But the county said the area’s steep and rocky topography leads to safety concerns about using the path as a bypass route. And, only four-wheel-drive vehicles could access the area.

The alternative would require several permits, delaying the project for an estimated two years, and it would cost an additional $200,000.

Kaupo resident Jonathan Starr said: “We are hearing that a lot of community members are really upset about them closing the road.”

Those unhappy with the planned road closure included residents of Kaupo, Kipahulu and Hana, Starr said.

A board member of Kaupo Community Association, Starr said various Hana Highway projects have impacted traffic, pushing more East Maui residents to use Piilani Highway.

“The road (Piilani Highway) is a lifeline,” he said. “It’s not just convenience. It’s where kids can get to school, and people get to work.”

Residents do not think the bridge repair work can be done in three weeks, as projected, he said.

“Weather and site conditions in the past have turned these type rehabs that seem fairly minor into monthslong projects,” he added.

Built in 1982, the existing bridge needs structural repairs and replacement of the bridge deck, railings and guardrails, the county said. The approach guardrails and posts were found to be severely corroded, and the bridge parapets have defects along the entire length.

The top surface of the concrete deck is in poor condition with patches, delamination and spalls over more than 60 percent of the deck area with cracking present in the structure.

Starr said he expected Public Works officials to be present at the next Kaupo Community Association meeting on Oct. 21. But he said he has been told that they will not be there.

County spokesman Rod Antone said Public Works officials are open to speaking to residents, but none are available for the Oct. 21 meeting.

The closure also will affect two major landowners, Haleakala Ranch and Kaupo Ranch. The county said it will notify them of any project developments.

“From our perspective, we see this as an unfortunate situation,” said Haleakala Ranch Senior Vice President J. Scott Meidell. “The community has needs of access that are going to be severely impacted by this.”

But he added that he understood that the county needs to repair the bridge.

“We have provided and will continue to provide an alternative option if that resurfaces. We will do what we can to assist in the process,” Meidell said.

Meidell was referring to the land makai of the bridge for a bypass route that the county has deemed too dangerous and costly to use.

He said that of the around 29,000 acres the ranch has, 3,000 are located on the southern slopes of Haleakala where Piilani Highway is located.

The ranch will be impacted, “but not in a very significant way,” because ranchers still have inland access to pastures.

Kaupo Ranch officials could not be reached immediately for comment Friday.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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