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Slower speed limit on S. Maui highway drives frustration

DOT makes 35 mph the new norm for stretch of Piilani roadway

The intersection of Uwapo Road and Kaiwahine Street is pictured. The state Department of Transportation recently announced that it will make a temporary reduction in speed permanent at 35 mph on Piilani Highway between Uwapo Road and Lipoa Street. Area residents and commuters are questioning the logic behind the change, saying that the major roadway should have higher speeds. GOOGLE MAPS photos

Some locals are confused and frustrated after the state Department of Transportation made a temporary speed reduction permanent on a lengthy stretch of South Maui’s sole highway.

The DOT announced Tuesday that a roughly 3-mile stretch between Uwapo Road and Lipoa Street on Piilani Highway — nearly half of the distance from north Kihei to Wailea — would be reduced to 35 mph in both directions, effective immediately.

Historically 40 mph, the speed limit had been temporarily reduced to 30 mph since November due to construction work, which is now complete.

In a Tuesday news release informing the public of the lower speed limit that started the same day, DOT said 35 mph is “appropriate for a multimodal use corridor and will improve safety for all roadway users.”

Some residents on Wednesday questioned the hasty rule change, though, saying the decrease will slow a congested area, leading to longer travel times to home and to work.

The new 35 mph speed limit ends at the intersection of Lipoa Street and Lipoa Parkway, about halfway from north Kihei to Wailea.

Barry Helle of Waikapu, who commutes to work in Wailea five days a week before and after normal business hours, said that 40 mph was already low, so decreasing it further is “extreme.”

“I drive it five days a week and I have not seen any accidents there unless they’re happening outside of the normal to-and-from work drive times,” he said. “I haven’t seen a problem. The typical flow is faster than the 40 so dropping down to 35 is, to me, a step in the wrong direction.”

“I think what they’re really trying to do is solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” he added.

Helle said that one of his customers already received a speeding ticket in the area on Wednesday morning.

“It’s not even like they gave warnings,” he said. “They just ticketed people off the get-go.”

Christina Levang of Pukalani, who drives to South Maui about three times a week to see family and to work her second job in Wailea, said when she first heard about the reduction, she was “pretty upset.”

“When they first changed the speed limit to 30 (mph) during construction, at that time, I understood,” she said. “But then when I found out it was going to be a permanent reduction, I was like, ‘Why? That makes no sense.’ By reducing it, it’s going to cause a lot of stagnation on the road, and South Kihei Road is already getting stagnating.”

She said South Kihei Road, a smaller roadway along the coastline, is already slow with vehicles from the influx of visitors, businesses reopening and people commuting to work. Forcing Piilani Highway to slow down will impact getting to work in a timely manner, Levang said.

Heather De Pee, who lives in Haiku and commutes four days a week to Wailea, said she’s unhappy with the reduction.

“I thought it was too slow before so I’m not happy about it,” she said. “It would make more sense on a windy, mountain road, but this long, straight stretch should be 55 (mph), in my opinion.”

Piilani Highway is a principal arterial with auxiliary turn lanes, multiple signalized intersection, multiple unsignalized intersections, crosswalks, merge areas and multimodal use including pedestrians and bicyclists, DOT said Tuesday.

When asked to elaborate on the reason behind the speed reduction, DOT spokesman Jai Cunningham said the posted speed limit was cut from 40 mph to 35 mph based on “assessment of surrounding land use.”

“Over the years the area has become more urbanized,” he said in an email Wednesday. “We also would hear from the community about speeding in this area.”

When it comes to determining speed for a highway, and the classification of highways versus smaller roads, Cunningham said the surrounding urban land use is what dictates the lower posted speed.

“You should not be driving at interstate speeds on a road meant to also serve pedestrians and bicyclists,” he said. “This is why on facilities with higher posted speed limits like the interstates, you see signage warning pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles that cannot go over a certain speed not to enter.”

Jenna Miller, who lives in north Kihei, said she doesn’t think the new rules will make a huge difference since “no one really follows the speed limits.”

“They need to do something, though, because traffic gets bad now,” she said. “And it’s only going to get worse with the school.”

Paul Romero, who drives along Piilani Highway to get to his north Kihei business every day, said he is “indifferent” about the speed.

“They do need to have enforcement,” he said. “Super bad speeders.”

Maui Police Department Traffic Commander Lt. William Hankins said that while Piilani Highway is a major roadway, it’s not engineered for higher speeds. Once a two-lane highway with 8-foot shoulders, it was later widened to a four-lane thoroughfare with 4-foot shoulders as South Maui grew and traffic backed up.

“The roads are too narrow for 55,” Hankins said Wednesday evening. “Just because it’s given a name called ‘highway’ doesn’t mean it should be like Kuihelani Highway or Haleakala Highway where there’s wide shoulders and medians. You’re talking about basically 12 inches of paint that separate north and southbound traffic. There’s no room to put medians.”

When asked if speeding and accidents have been an issue in the area, Hankins said speeding is one of the top issues islandwide for the Traffic Division, along with impaired driving and wearing seat belts.

“With the volume of traffic we’ve seen with the increase of visitors and more people going back to work, the congestion kind of controls a little bit of the speed, but that doesn’t help with the recklessness, because people get impatient,” he said.

DOT has to do what it can to accommodate the growth in the community while maintaining safety, Hankins said, pointing out that the higher the speeds, the greater the damage in collisions.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes to have speed limits on South Kihei Road and Piilani the same, but if it’s going to make things safer, we understand,” he said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews .com. Managing Editor Colleen Uechi contributed to this report.

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