With the state Legislature approving $3.6 million for preliminary work on the Kihei-Upcountry highway earlier this month, it appears the project is finally moving ahead, more than 30 years after the new highway was first conceived.
But Maui residents shouldn't expect the 9.6-mile highway - from Haleakala Highway's intersection with Haliimaile Road to the Piilani Highway and Kaonoulu Road intersection in Kihei - to be constructed anytime soon, state Department of Transportation officials said.
"We need to stress it is really preliminary," department spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said Friday.
And that may come as a relief to some residents who remain opposed to the project and its current design.
Funding is a major hurdle, which is why it has stalled in the past, Sluyter said. The project's final environmental impact statement was completed in 2002, with state officials saying then they hoped construction would begin in 2004 and finish in 2007.
According to the DOT, the estimated cost for all three of the project's construction phases is $200 million, with 80 percent coming from the federal government and 20 percent from the state.
Speaking as an individual and not on behalf of his organization, Kihei Community Association President Mike Moran pointed out that he hasn't seen any traffic studies for the Kihei-Upcountry highway, but he's concerned about more traffic coming to already-congested Kihei. More people in South Maui also could contribute to overcrowding at the region's public parks, he said.
Moran said he prefers another alternative for the highway's South Maui terminus, moving it farther south to allow more direct access to Wailea and Makena and giving people in those areas another escape route in an emergency.
For example, he cited a recent traffic fatality that shut down Piilani Highway and caused "mass gridlock for several hours."
The terminus at Piilani Highway and Kaonoulu Road would have been impacted by that highway shutdown, he said.
"If we think what if it were a big natural catastrophe, a tsunami or earthquake. People would be trapped," Moran said.
Kula resident Shelley Maddigan said she is concerned that the highway could bring more traffic to Upcountry and disturb the rural lifestyle there.
"Personally, I can see the need for it . . . with more residents on the island and developments that are planned," Maddigan said. "But, in my heart, I really don't really think it's a good thing for Upcountry."
Maddigan serves as president of the Kula Community Association, but she was speaking as an individual.
She added that she was concerned about tourists navigating Upcountry's narrow and winding roads.
While the county has the Maui Bus, Maddigan said the state and county need to do more to provide "decent transportation" for tourists and residents to take more cars off the road.
Alleviating traffic on Maui's roads is one reason for the highway, according to the final environmental impact statement for the two-lane, Kihei-Upcountry highway. Other reasons include establishing a direct road between Upcountry and South Maui, providing another coastal evacuation route and supporting economic development.
"Although it is still in the preliminary stages, the Upcountry highway project is moving forward," DOT Director Glenn Okimoto said in an email. "This is an important connecting roadway for the people of Maui and will eventually provide a much-needed corridor between Kihei and Upcountry that will save travel time and help to reduce traffic congestion."
The $3.6 million proposed for the highway in Gov. Neil Abercrombie's recent budget and subsequently approved by the Legislature will be used to assist with the land acquisition for the highway.
Out of the $3.6 million allowed to be spent on the project, $2.88 million is federal funding and $720,000 is state funding, officials said.
The highway will cross properties owned by Alexander & Baldwin, Kaonoulu Ranch and Haleakala Ranch, said Charlene Shibuya, DOT Highways Division assistant Maui District engineer/construction engineer.
In all, the state is seeking to purchase an estimated 437 acres, she added. The road will not go through residential areas, but it will run through cane fields and uncultivated open ranch lands.
The state is in the preliminary design phase of the roadway and in right-of-way negotiations.
This includes negotiating access crossings, irrigation and ditch crossing easements and other ways to reduce the new highway's impact on agricultural operations and cattle ranches.
Some sections of the 2002 environmental impact statement will need to be updated as the highway's design is completed, Shibuya added.
The state is targeting funding for federal fiscal year 2014, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2014. That funding would be contingent on completing all land acquisitions, utility easements and updating the environmental impact statement.
The highway's first phase will run from Haliimaile Road to Omaopio Road, Shibuya said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.