Solutions for pali traffic woes elusive

Stop-and-go, Lahaina-bound traffic winds its way through the pali area of Honoapiilani Highway earlier this month. More visitors and more vehicles on the road are driving a growing problem. The average daily traffic counts around Lahaina grew 25 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kaanapali resident Mike Sowers tries to avoid traffic on Honoapiilani Highway “like the plague” and plans his commutes to and from West Maui like a science.

He leaves at 9 a.m. for a weekly trip to Costco and returns by 11 a.m. If he leaves Kahului after 11 a.m., he’ll end up stuck in a long line of vehicles on the two-lane highway with tourists who are making their way from Kahului Airport to West Maui hotels.

“If we get out of town by 11, everything is great,” he said. “We try to avoid like the plague anything that comes close to (commuting when) tourists get off the plane. It’s just horrible.”

But even skilled traffic avoiders like Sowers still find themselves stuck in gridlock.

His “worst experience” was Feb. 28 while heading from Kaanapali to Kahului for a Journey concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Thinking he’d have enough time, he left home at 5 p.m. for the 7 p.m. concert. But it took 45 minutes just to get from Lahainaluna Road to Launiupoko, a distance less than 5 miles.

A line of motorists on Honoapiilani Highway reaches the pali tunnel on May 4. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“We thought there was a huge wreck,” he said.

But it was just traffic, especially from cars coming from feeder streets onto Honoapiilani Highway, Sowers said.

He made it to the concert late, but it was behind schedule and he didn’t miss much.

And Sowers’ story is probably not even the worst residents have heard.

Grumbling, concern and finger-pointing about traffic along Honoapiilani Highway — from the pali to Kaanapali — have been growing in the past year or so among residents, business operators and politicians who want something done.

The problems

Residents and government leaders point to various factors aggravating traffic congestion. Those include more tourists and cars on the road, more construction and development in West Maui and the installation of traffic signals in key areas that stop highway traffic to allow vehicles access from the Lahaina bypass and housing subdivisions in Launiupoko. Others say there’s a need for a new highway to bypass the pali.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said that the average annual daily traffic counts around Lahaina grew about 25 percent from 2009 to 2015. (The DOT is still compiling numbers for 2016.)

The department’s Planning Section attributes the growing traffic count to tourist growth after the recession.

Last year, a record-breaking 2.6 million visitors came to Maui, according to the Hawai’i Tourism Authority. That was 3.9 percent more visitors than 2015, which also was a record-setting year.

Much of the traffic on Honoapiilani Highway is at Kaanapali, Kunishige said.

Statistics and maps from the state showed that, in 2015, a traffic counting station near Kaanapali Parkway, the main entrance and exit to Kaanapali hotels, logged an average of 42,333 vehicles passing through that area per day.

Other counts along Honoapiilani Highway showed lower numbers in 2015, including an area on the Lahaina side of Papalaua, which logged an average annual daily traffic count of 26,536 in 2015.

Another station along Honoapiilani Highway between Lower Honoapiilani Road and Honokowai Bridge showed an average annual daily traffic count of 19,400 in 2015.

While on the opposite end of Honoapiilani Highway, a station between North Kihei Road and Maalaea showed an average annual daily traffic count of 19,300.

Chris Gilbert, a longtime Maui ambulance paramedic with American Medical Response, attributes traffic choking up to Mainland flights arriving at Kahului Airport around the same time and to tourists, who he understands “can’t help but slow down” when they see the ocean on the way to Lahaina.

Gilbert, a station team leader in Lahaina, said what also slows traffic is drivers pulling in to the beach parks along Honoapiilani Highway.

A bottleneck for paramedics and other first responders is at the stretch of Honoapiilani Highway near the Lahaina Aquatic Center, where there are traffic signals that affect the flow of traffic and there’s usually congestion at peak times.

What hampers first responders getting around that traffic is that vehicles heading out of Lahaina do not have anywhere to pull off the road because there’s a planter on the median and large plants and curbs on the other side of the roadway that prevent vehicles from driving off the road, some first responders said.

Gilbert said first responders need to “go on the wrong side of the street to get out of Lahaina.”

Maui County Council Member Elle Cochran also pointed to more cars on the road as a reason for the gridlock.

“I feel like probably in the last year, it’s just been nonstop traffic,” said the West Maui residency council member.

Even at 5 a.m., Cochran said, traffic coming to West Maui is brisk with delivery trucks, construction workers and even some county workers traveling to jobs on the west side. Traffic then picks up in the opposite direction when people head out of Lahaina to school or work.

After leaving the county building after 4 or 5 p.m., Cochran is sometimes greeted by a line of cars in Maalaea.

In the past, a line of backed-up traffic at Maalaea would signal an accident somewhere on the pali or in Lahaina, but she said “this is normal now.”

Cochran and other motorists also blame traffic on the opposite end of Honoapiilani Highway, in Lahaina town, to the signal at Kai Hele Ku Street in Launiupoko. The other is the traffic signal at Honoapiilani and Hokiokio Place, which connects to the current portion of the Lahaina bypass.

“With more cars on the road, it creates a domino effect,” Cochran said. “That’s how I look at it. I’m not a traffic engineer, just from a layman’s point of view and being on the road.”

Gavin Isobe, president of A&I Refrigeration, has employees traveling to the west side to conduct repairs and maintenance. He agrees that traffic is negatively impacted by the signals and “seems like it made it worse.”

He said traffic used to flow better without the lights.

If he and his crew leave Lahaina between 4 and 6 p.m., that’s probably the worst time period for traffic, and the lights exacerbate the situation.

“It’s usually bumper to bumper out of Lahaina until Launiupoko,” he said.

Isobe added: “It just seems like there is not enough lanes for the amount of cars on the road, (and) both ends have a streetlight.”

The DOT’s Kunishige said traffic signals at Kai Hele Ku and Hokiokio “prioritize traffic on the main line,” which is Honoapiilani Highway. She added that “no amount of ‘green time’ will clear all traffic during peak travel times when there is more volume than the system can accommodate.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa said problems on the main thoroughfare to and from West Maui will continue until the state builds another road from Maalaea over the pali.

That project has been on the back burner for years and has even been taken off the state long-range planning list of road projects, he said.

“We have been looking at it all this time traffic is increasing,” Arakawa said.

Tourists are not going to want to sit for hours in traffic, and having just one main road is a health and safety issue with major accidents and fires shutting down the highway for hours, he added. This leaves people stranded and stuck at both ends of the highway.

“Tourists get stuck in Lahaina, miss their flight. It’s costing people hundreds of thousands of dollars every time we have that traffic stop,” the mayor said.

Arakawa said that for the last three years he has been asking the state to begin funding a long-range plan for a new highway. “They keep saying we can’t afford it,” he said.

“We got to start making noise as a community, demand something be done,” he added.

State Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami said in an email that a new highway from the pali to Maalaea would cost the state between $500 million and $1 billion. The estimate does not include potential environmental, cultural and historic impacts that the project could encounter, Fuchigami added.

The only way the state could fund this new road would be by raising taxes for gas and vehicle registration.

The cost of building a new road to West Maui would delay all other state road and maintenance projects up to three years, Fuchigami said.

“At this time, when our state’s aging infrastructure requires immediate repair, when the federal agencies that fund our programs require us to prioritize preservation and safety, and when we were not able to get approval to increase revenues to the highways special fund to meet the needs of the system, a project of this magnitude is not feasible,” Fuchigami said.

Possible solutions

Fuchigami said he does “absolutely understand that the population growth in West Maui has produced an unwelcomed increase in traffic congestion.”

Therefore, he said, the state is moving forward with another phase of the Lahaina bypass, which will stretch from Hokiokio Place to the Olowalu area and is estimated to be completed by January. The awarded contract amount is nearly $39 million and includes design and construction for 2.7 miles of the bypass, which begins at the southeastern terminus of the last bypass phase. The current bypass runs from Hokiokio Place to Keawe Street.

“We prioritized this capacity-building project even though funding shortages dictate that the department focus on the preservation of existing bridges and roads,” Fuchigami said. “And it comes at a time when funding is not available to build new roads in other communities around the state, many of which are experiencing a similar increase in traffic congestion. These are the tough decisions that we make daily.”

While the state Transportation Department said that it does not have plans for future phases of the bypass unless additional funding is secured, West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey pointed out that this year, in the Legislature’s capital improvement project budget, $75 million was approved for design and construction of the extension of the Lahaina bypass from North Keawe Street to beyond Puukolii Road in Kaanapali.

McKelvey said this portion of the bypass is direly needed because “most of the new traffic in the area is being generated on the north side of West Maui, especially with the new resorts that just opened and help residents, workers and visitors alike.”

This phase of the project had been removed from the state Transportation Department’s capital improvement plans last year when the department said it was focusing on maintenance of existing highways. Kunishige said that the funding lawmakers have identified is in the department’s budget, but those funds already have been committed to other projects.

Upon hearing the department’s response, McKelvey said that, more than ever, legislators need the public’s help to try and get this phase of the bypass on the state’s transportation improvement plan and to ask that the money the Legislature identified be used for this project.

“Now, the community has to jump on and help us. We’ve done it before,” he said.

West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker said that she and McKelvey have been trying to see if the Transportation Department could work with them on getting a ferry service started. Baker said there is a ferry terminal in Maalaea and one being built in Lahaina.

“We are trying to think out of the box,” Baker said. “Nobody knows how to get around the pali” and, until that is solved, other solutions need to be found.

Baker raised questions about limiting traffic in and out of West Maui, which could be done by not having as many rental cars or if airlines could change their flight arrivals and departures. Baker added that maybe more flights could depart and arrive at Kapalua Airport, alleviating the need for tourists to drive from Central Maui over the pali.

“If there was an easy solution, we would have already funded it,” she said.

Fuchigami said that he and the department will work with the newly formed Maui Metropolitan Planning Organization to plan and prioritize future transportation projects for Maui. The organization is a federally mandated government agency formed in 2016 by the state and the county “to facilitate comprehensive planning for federally funded or regionally significant transportation systems” on Maui.

Fuchigami said that the state will be encouraging the county administration to explore other avenues of reducing congestion along Honoapiilani Highway. This includes increasing bus service between Central and West Maui, offering bike-share for sightseers in Lahaina or Kaanapali or exploring the feasibility of an intraisland ferry service.

Fuchigami said the county may want to consider widening Kahekili Highway around the backside of the island.

“Additionally, smart land-use decisions can minimize the impacts future growth will have on the existing highway system,” he said.

Lauren Armstrong, executive director of the Maui MPO, said that the agency will work with stakeholders and the state Transportation Department to continue moving forward on realigning Honoapiilani Highway from Olowalu to the pali as well as other projects to alleviate traffic problems through the island.

Realigning Honoapiilani Highway would improve the safety and reliability of a critical route for West Maui residents, employees and visitors by moving the road away from an area threatened by storm waves and sea-level rise.

Armstrong encouraged people to share their input on transportation solutions by attending Maui MPO meetings. More information can be found at www.mauimpo.org.

She added that people can help alleviate congestion by carpooling or catching the bus when possible, doing their best to avoid peak traffic hours and getting involved with the transportation planning process.

“We can’t afford to build a lot of new roads, and unless we develop more walkable communities, invest in our bus system and try to drive less, traffic will just fill up the new roads anyway,” she said.

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