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Group seeks to address traffic issues on Hana Highway

The Hana Highway, particularly the portion that stretches from Paia to Hana, is scenic and popular, but that appeal among tourists is causing problems that appear to be escalating, as motorists slow or stop to take pictures or park on both sides of the highway, including its narrow bottlenecks.

All of this is creating less-than-desirable roadway conditions for East Maui residents who depend on the thoroughfare as a lifeline between their remote communities and the rest of the Valley Isle.

Driving from Central Maui to Hana normally takes two hours, but if traffic is at its peak it could take three hours, East Maui residents say. At times, delivery truck drivers with goods for Hana residents need to get out of their vehicles, find tourists and get them to move rental cars that are blocking the roadway.

Such problems are not new along the route to Hana, but residents say the rise of the internet, more travel books and television shows are directing tourists to remote areas along the roadway. Along with unpermitted tour vehicles, there are thousands of cars overcrowding Hana Highway, residents say.

“It has been sort of happening for a long time. (But) it is at a head here,” said Keanae resident Napua Hueu.

“It’s a little bit hard to tolerate as a resident having to deal with this chaos,” added Hueu, who is also a general manager of a tour company. She drives along Hana Highway, where she spots alleged nonpermitted tours that disregard no-parking signs.

Maui visitor arrivals increased 2.7 percent from January to July to 1,569,985 this year, compared with 1,528,183 at the same time last year, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority reported.

Hana resident Lehua Cosma said it is important to educate drivers for the safety of the residents and the tourists themselves, who may not know the dangers of the narrow roadway to Hana, where landslides often happen.

“That highway is the lifeline for Hana people. We got to go to doctors’ appointments. Some even go to work every day (to Central Maui),” Cosma said.

She said that if cars park on both sides of the highway, other vehicles cannot get through.

“That has become a concern for all the residents,” she said.

Because of the rising problems and concerns, Hueu and a handful of East Maui residents and businesses have started the nonprofit Hana Highway Regulation Authority.

According to its website, the group aims to protect Hana Highway’s “unique natural environment and host culture through place specific educational programs and the promotion of responsible travel.”

This could include developing guidelines for tour companies driving along Hana Highway and educating tourists who drive the scenic route, Hueu said.

Despite the organization’s name, Hueu said, “we don’t necessarily want to have the responsibility or regulation or patrol or being the authority, (but) we would like to generate the attention that is needed” for the highway.

On July 28, between 8 a.m. and noon, a volunteer counted 913 vehicles on Hana Highway heading in both directions. More than half of those vehicles, or 529, were rental vehicles. The count was conducted along the roadside around Milepost 14 at Honomanu.

Now, the group is in its information-gathering stage, and it wants to hear community concerns about the highway.

The group’s first official meeting will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Paia Community Center. For more information, go to www.hanahighwayregulation.com.

The group has already sent letters to various agencies to help mitigate tourist-related traffic problems. Hueu said letters were sent at the beginning of the month to the state Department of Transportation, state Public Utilities Commission (regarding unpermitted tour companies), the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau and others.

The state Department of Transportation has acknowledged receiving requests from the community for signage along Hana Highway. The DOT said it added “no-parking” signs last week after Maui District staff identified areas with sight-distance issues because cars were parking in and around curves.

“No Parking” signs were placed at Milepost 9 near the Ridge Trail and at Milepost 10 at the Waikamoi Bridge, according to the DOT. It added car tow-away placards to existing signs at Milepost 19 at Waikani Bridge to discourage people from unsafe stopping along the road.

The department “encourages all visitors and residents traveling Hana Highway to be aware of possible hazards along this scenic, but narrow, highway,” a DOT official said in an email.

Cosma has received reports that, with the new signs, there were no cars parked in the area last week. She added that the signs appear more visible to drivers.

However, she took a wait-and-see stance on the new developments.

“We’ll see how long that works,” she said.

Hueu said that the nonprofit has identified at least 20 possible tour operators that do not have Public Utilities Commission permits. These operators also drive along Hana Highway.

Hueu, general manager at Platinum Tours of Maui, said it is unfair that businesses that register with the PUC and follow regulations and contribute to the upkeep of state highways need to compete against unregulated businesses that are “taking up space and adding to the chaos” along the highway.

She has sent a list of suspected unregulated tour companies to the PUC.

In an email, Gary Kobayashi, the compliance officer with the PUC, did not specifically address the issues along Hana Highway, but he acknowledged that the agency “conducts surveillance throughout the state and also investigates alleged violations that are reported to us.”

He added that there could be civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each offense that is assessed against motor carriers who fail or refuse to comply with Hawaii’s motor carrier law, along with any rule requirement or order. (Under the law, operators who transport people for compensation or hire by a motor vehicle over a public highway must have a certificate or permit to do so.)

Kobayashi said that in a case of a continuing violation, not less than $50 and not more than $500 can be assessed for each additional day during which the failure or refusal to comply continues.

In an emailed statement, Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, said that the agency had just been made aware of the allegations of nonpermitted motor tour operators. She said that the bureau takes any suspicion of illegal tourism activity seriously.

“We intend to work with the appropriate government agencies to review these claims. MVCB’s overriding concern is that any tour operator is conducting their business safely and in compliance with all laws and regulations,” she said.

In addition to comments and concerns surrounding the route to Hana, Hueu said that the group would like to hear concerns from people about other areas along the highway, such as Paia as it’s a gateway to Hookipa Beach Park along Hana Highway.

Basically, the group is looking at examining issues such as the environment, the culture and community well-being along the entire highway.

While the group examines how residents are affected by highway issues, Cosma said she also is concerned about visitors’ safety.

She has seen tourists going over guardrails to take photos and even going to remote places on private property or in dangerous areas.

She pointed to the popular Twin Falls attraction along Hana Highway and said that she frequently sees firetrucks in the area responding to help people.

“I’m thinking, ‘Not again,'” Cosma said.

In 2012, an 18-year-old Arizona man died after he had gone over a guardrail to take a photo at Makapipi Bridge and lost his footing. He fell about 40 feet.

Cosma said that, at times, tourists stop on areas of the highway where landslides often occur. “They don’t know” about the dangers, she said.

She recognizes that tourists are important to the island’s economy.

“We get aloha all around. (But) you got to limit something when it gets out of hand. Sometimes we (residents) get taken advantage of. We got to step up, just kind of malama (take care for) everyone’s safety.”

State Sen. J. Kalani English, who lives in Hana and represents the area, commended the efforts of the Hana Highway Regulation Authority.

“I’m just thrilled they are forming this group,” English said. “Government cannot do it alone.”

English said that he has witnessed firsthand how Hana Highway can get clogged with traffic, especially when people are parking where they shouldn’t and blocking cars from passing, many times.

As the group has suggested, English said that perhaps some education could be provided for visitors on how best to drive along the often-narrow roadway.

He suggested that perhaps the state PUC, which administers motor-tour permits, could monitor how many permits are given out for road tours to Hana.

English said that Hana Highway is an economic generator for the island and is the No. 2 tourist activity – behind Haleakala Crater.

“More and more people are going down that highway that are not familiar with it,” he said.

English, who has spent years ensuring Hana Highway is safe to travel and that it receives money for repairs and other issues, said discussions have gone on about having more pullout areas for vehicles. But, because much of the land along Hana Highway is owned by different and private owners, carving out a piece of property is difficult, he said.

Maui County Council Member Bob Carroll, who lives in Hana and holds the council’s East Maui residency seat, commutes daily from his home to Wailuku. He said that he has noticed an increase in traffic along the highway.

Traffic is heavy from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. most of the year, he said, and later during summer months.

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