DOT: Bypass realignment can be tweaked but cannot be stopped

Changes planned for the north end of the bypass at Keawe Street have run into plenty of opposition

Ed Sniffen (from left), state Department of Transportation deputy director for highways; Sandra Brown of The Festival Cos., property manager for Lahaina Gateway Center; and Todd Domeck, co-owner of the Maui Sugar Cane Train, appear before the County Council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee on Monday. They were invited to testify to discuss adjustments being made at the Keawe Street intersection with Honoapiilani Highway in Lahaina to accommodate traffic from the soon-to-be-completed Lahaina bypass. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

WAILUKU — A state Department of Transportation official said adjustments can be made to the Keawe Street intersection with Honoapiilani Highway and the current phase of the Lahaina bypass nearing completion, but the controversial project cannot be stopped.

Deputy Director for Highways Ed Sniffen appeared Monday before the County Council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee to discuss the bypass and intersection improvements that have drawn criticism from public officials and west side residents and businesses.

The 2.6-mile southern extension of the bypass from Hokiokio Road to Olowalu, near “cut mountain,” could be completed in March and will increase traffic on the bypass by 70 percent, the Transportation Department has said. To accommodate the increased traffic at the northern end of the bypass in Lahaina town, changes were planned on Keawe Street and its intersection with Honoapiilani Highway. Work on Keawe Street began last week and is expected to be completed in March.

Since hearing of the Keawe Street changes about a month ago, the West Maui community, lawmakers and businesses have been critical of the project. They say Keawe Street, which is next to the Lahaina Gateway Center and other businesses, cannot handle more traffic and that the reduction of one through Kaanapali-bound lane on Honoapiilani Highway at the intersection will create traffic tie-ups at an already congested intersection.

“I totally understand the concerns,” Sniffen said repeatedly at the committee meeting.

State highways operator Troy Kalanikau mows tall grass last week along the edge of Keawe Street near where it turns into the Lahaina bypass. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He reiterated previous public statements that after the projects are completed, the department will do further analysis, gather data and take into account community input regarding any problems.

However, the department has limits on funding and planning changes, Sniffen said.

“I don’t want to say (the plans) are fixed,” he added, but changes would take the project back to the planning process and would involve more time and money.

“If we have to do it, we have to do it,” he said.

Instead of spending the several years and millions of dollars on the changes, Sniffen said he would rather put the effort and funding into the northern phase of the bypass from Keawe Street to Kaanapali.

Committee Chairwoman Elle Cochran, who holds the West Maui residency seat, invited Sniffen and county and business officials to give their input on the Keawe Street project at the meeting.

No action was taken at the meeting.

After the meeting, Cochran said it was “great to have all the players so to speak at the table.”

She understands that the project will not stop but believes adjustments can be made before or after completion. At a meeting on Oahu last week with Transportation Department officials, she got their assurances that adjustments will be made after the work is completed.

“We will have to see. The fear of the unknown is scary,” she said.

The county can play a role in those adjustments as well because pieces of Keawe Street and side streets are county-owned. County Public Works Director David Goode told the committee that he just received updated traffic counts and other data from the Transportation Department and will need time to fully digest the data and determine what the county and state can do to mitigate issues on Keawe Street.

He did offer some initial information, such as during peak hours 120 vehicles per hour try to get out of the Panda Express driveway along Keawe Street. That amounts to one vehicle every 30 seconds.

“They are getting out,” he said.

Goode said he also was working with the state on some lane restriping and improvements to help traffic flow on Keawe Street. This included a small left-hand turn lane heading makai into Kupuohi Street from Keawe Street.

Dan Blessing, owner of Island Cream Co. in Lahaina Gateway Center, warned state and county officials to not only look at the numbers of cars in the area but also at wait times.

“That’s when people get impatient and get impulsive at the intersection,” he said. “That’s where we get our problems.”

When work began on the Keawe Street intersection last week, Blessing said, he lost 40 percent of his customers following three months of record sales.

He said he has collected nearly 1,700 signatures in opposition to the Keawe Street project.

Lawmakers have attempted to change or delay work on the project. West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey has asked Gov. David Ige to order a “timeout” on the project to resolve some of the concerns. Council Member Don Guzman has introduced a resolution that could involve the county seeking an injunction to stop work to allow time to discuss possible alternatives. That resolution was referred Friday to the council Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at