HALIIMAILE Upcountry drivers got their first taste of wide-open road when the final phase of the Haleakala Highway widening project opened Thursday afternoon.
The new 5.5-mile stretch of four-lane, divided highway will give drivers headed downhill more breathing room, but also will require morning commuters to change some of their traffic patterns.
Pukalani residents coming from Old Haleakala Highway will have to stop at the intersection and cross two lanes of uphill traffic before they can turn downhill onto the highway. Uphill morning traffic, which was previously routed through Pukalani town along the old Haleakala Road from 5 to 8:30 a.m., will be able to continue straight on the main highway.
Representing the governor, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (left) joined state Sen. J. Kalani English in untying a stubborn knot in a maile lei that opened the new section of the Haleakala Highway during a blessing ceremony.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
At least one Pukalani resident was skeptical of the new traffic plan. Larry Feinberg said he wasn't looking forward to having to cross two uphill lanes before he could turn downhill onto the new stretch of highway.
"I think it's going to be very difficult," he said.
State Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said the state decided not to put a traffic signal at the Pukalani turnoff. The newly widened stretch of highway will already have traffic signals at the Haliimaile Road intersection and at the crossing of a cane-haul road. Those should create "gaps" in uphill traffic that will allow Pukalani drivers to cross, he said.
The state is also hoping some drivers from Pukalani will decide to use the intersection at Makani Road where there is a traffic signal, he said. That would spread out traffic.
"People will feel their way to what is their best route," he said.
For more than a decade, state workers placed traffic cones by hand every morning to create a contra-flow lane on the three-lane Haleakala Highway. That will end with the opening of the new lanes.
The uphill portion of the highway will continue to have the old "third lane" attached. Morioka said the state would turn it into a hatch-painted median. While plans originally called for digging up the lane and planting grass, the state decided instead to keep it for use as a safety zone or future passing lane.
"Keeping it as-is gives us a lot of flexibility in the future," he said.
State Sen. J. Kalani English, a Democrat whose district includes Upcountry as well as East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said the project has been badly needed by Upcountry commuters for years.
"It's about time," he said.
Construction of the two phases took four years. Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. had the $36 million construction contract.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.