Upcountry-South Maui road critical to island connectivity

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

In recent weeks, over 14,000 acres of valuable agricultural land have been scorched by wild fires fueled by high winds and arid conditions.

A vast stretch of fallow fields previously blanketed by sugar cane is left susceptible to increasingly hot and dry weather, mechanical mishaps and abhorrent arsonists. The fires have threatened residents, visitors, homes, other property and even defenseless animals at the shelter.

Public health and safety are at risk.

During the first of these dangerously unpredictable fires, county and private-sector responders were stretched to their limits. The county determined it was necessary to activate its Emergency Operating Center to coordinate responding efforts.

The situation grew dire enough that Piilani Highway and North Kihei Road were shut down, trapping thousands of residents and visitors in South Maui. This is totally unacceptable.

While it is sometimes necessary to close down roadways for the safety of our community, cutting off densely populated South Maui from the rest of the island leaves families divided and prevents tourists from returning to their hotels in other parts of the island. People in these circumstances have no recourse but to wait for one of these roadways to reopen.

We nearly encountered a similar situation later when another runaway fire began just below Pukalani. This fire consumed over 5,000 acres of land and forced the closure of Pulehu Road.

Luckily, Haleakala Highway remained open. But, if that roadway needed to be closed, anyone needing to enter or leave Upcountry would have been forced to go through Paia or Haiku.

Situations like these should not occur. It is imperative that we increase the connectivity on our island to always make sure people have a way home.

To that end, one of my top priorities is to propose that a South Maui-to-Upcountry road be built as soon as possible. If the project advances, the intersection of Haleakala Highway and Haliimaile Road is the preferred terminus, according to the Makawao-Pukalani-Kula Community Plan.

I supported the effort to build such a Kihei-Upcountry highway over 20 years ago. The road was to be funded by mainly federal appropriations.

The project garnered support from the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and he advocated for the funding at the federal level.

An environmental impact statement for the project was conducted, and some preliminary design work was initiated. The 879-page “Kihei Upcountry Maui Highway” EIS, approved in 2002, is available online: tinyurl.com/KiheiUpcountry.

The EIS notes the county first started studying a South Maui-Upcountry connector road in 1970. The EIS lists six “purposes and needs” to be satisfied by the project, including the following:

“Establish a roadway system linkage.”

“Increase coastal evacuation capacity.”

More recently, the Maui Island Plan also called attention to the problem of “limited routes for safe evacuation.” The plan, adopted seven years ago, observes: “In several areas of the island there is only one access to get into or out of a region.”

After Sen. Inouye passed away in 2012, the South Maui-to-Upcountry project was essentially shelved by the State of Hawaii because of a lack of federal funds. However, recent events have made it clear that we need to restart work on this project.

In the coming weeks, I will request that a temporary investigative group be formed to collect and assess relevant data in order to proceed with this project. Both County Council Chairwoman Kelly King and Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez have expressed interest in researching and analyzing options.

Community meetings will be planned to include and encourage full public participation. We will also need substantial assistance from our congressional team, our governor and our state legislators if this nearly 50-year-old idea is to advance.

I am hoping this will truly be a community effort.

* Alice Lee is chairwoman of the council’s Water and Infrastructure Committee. She holds the council seat for the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.