Slowdown on Pi‘ilani
Before Pi’ilani Highway opened in the early 1980s, South Kihei Road was South Maui’s only north-south artery.
During rush hours, the oceanfront road became a congested mess. It could take an hour to travel the length of rapidly growing Kihei. Left turns were impossible without the kindness of other motorists.
Two-lane Pi’ilani Highway alleviated some of the traffic stress when it opened, but it too became snarled as development boomed. Without much widening, apart from having its drainage swales filled with asphalt, Pi’ilani became four lanes in the 1990s. The roadway was extended to Wailea and a few traffic lights and turn lanes were added, but not much has changed since the swales were filled and extra lines painted.
At its best, Pi’ilani efficiently moves traffic the length of the long corridor. At its worst, it is a narrow speedway home to horrific accidents. Day in and day out, it serves as a lifeline for residents, visitors and commerce.
The highway has been in the news lately with stories about a pedestrian overpass, underpass and roundabout for Kihei high school, which is under construction. That attention was overshadowed last week when the State Dept. of Transportation pasted 3s over the 4s on all the speed limit signs. The entire town was abuzz with talk about Pi’ilani’s new 30 mph speed limit.
The reduction is reported to be temporary for roadway projects, but the message is clear, South Maui residents and workers better prepare for longer commutes.
State DOT engineers and the Kihei Community Association are advocating a roundabout at the intersection servicing the high school that will slow traffic to about 15-20 mph. The promised pedestrian overpass and proposed underpass are separate from the roundabout and would augment its crosswalks. The DOT has come out strongly against both as too expensive, saying the overpass will not be used and the underpass is in a flood zone.
Community leaders continue to push for an underpass. The State Land Use Commission has deferred a measure to cancel the condition requiring an overpass, which few of the players seem to really want.
However things transpire, let’s envision Pi’ilani Highway when the long-awaited school opens. What happens when it lets out at the same time as nearby Kihei Charter, Kihei Elementary and Lokelani Intermediate schools? Pre-COVID, the Lipoa Street intersection was already badly congested on school days.
When accidents shut down Pi’ilani Highway, all of south Maui becomes gridlock. A state traffic study says the high school could eventually cause “D” level traffic at peak use. Level “E” is gridlock.
We wonder if the state would be willing to trade the cancellation of a $35 million pedestrian bridge for help in financing a pair of road bridges on nearby Liloa Drive. Completing this makai collector road would relieve stress on both Pi’ilani and South Kihei Road. It would also give drivers another north-south option during road closures and emergencies.