For years, Makaha Beach on Oahu’s Leeward Coast has been a favorite spot for both locals and visitors. Makaha is home to legendary surfers like Rell Sun, Buffalo Keaulana and Duane DeSoto. People come to picnic with families, surf the waves and enjoy the beach.

But a plan by the state Department of Transportation to rebuild two aging bridges on Farrington Highway could have cars driving right through the beach.

Construction on the project is estimated to take at least 16 months, during which traffic would flow through a temporary bypass road on what is now sandy beach.

The project will cost an estimated $20 million, transportation officials said.

Residents are worried that these plans will just perpetuate poor safety conditions at Makaha Beach Park. As it is now, beachgoers park on the mauka side of the road and must cross over a section of the highway in order to reach the beach. Some carry surfboards, canoes and other equipment as they cross.

“About 5,000 vehicles flow through every day, and kids and families have to cross the highway to get to the beach,” said Al Frenzel, who has lived in Makaha Valley for more than a decade. “I’m surprised we don’t have more accidents there, but as park use increases, the likelihood of death or injury is going to high.”

Frenzel, who serves on the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board, has started Malama Makaha to raise awareness about community concerns surrounding the bridge replacement project. He began circulating a petition last month and has already collected nearly 1,400 signatures — 551 online and about 840 in print. He and other neighborhood residents also plan to waive signs along the road at Nanakuli Beach Park every Friday to raise awareness as people come into the Leeward Coast.

A spokeswoman for the transportation department said that the wooden bridges, built in 1937, have deteriorated and must be replaced for safety reasons. The bypass through Makaha beach would only be temporary, she said.

“We understand that it’s an inconvenience for people on the makai side as well and we’re trying to do what we can to mitigate the situation,” said DOT’s Caroline Sluyter.

The department will put the project out to bid this fall, and expects construction to begin some time next year, she said.

An Alternate Route

The city came up with a master plan for Makaha Beach Park in 1998 that had originally proposed to reroute Farrington Highway more inland and away from the beach, instead of how it is set up now — right along the shoreline. According to Frenzel, the plan was never executed due to a lack of funds. He said the state should now reinvest the $20 million that has been appropriated for replacing the current bridges as they are now into constructing an entirely new path.

“The mauka route is higher elevation and it’s better protected,” said Frenzel. “And we don’t have to worry about the temporary bridge that runs right on the beach possibly being washed into the bay.”

The state did consider the alternative mauka route but did not move forward with those plans because they would have had to destroy an existing wetland habitat and relocate at least one of the private residents that live along the proposed path, according to a department spokeswoman.

But more importantly, the state says the bridges won’t last that long, and they don’t have enough time to plan or develop an alternate route, which would take years.

“These bridges were built in the 30s and have been deemed structurally deficient,” said Sluyter. “It’s our responsibility to maintain, repair and replace these types of structures…we wouldn’t want one of the bridges to fail and have an accident happen.”

Still, some residents are not convinced that the state is considering all the options.

“Makaha is one of the most unique sure breaks in the world because of its range — it can break from two feet tall all the way up to 20 feet,” said Stuart Coleman, who heads the Hawaii chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the state, and they [DOT] are going to build a road on it.”

Coleman went so far as to call the Makaha bridge replacement project a “boondoggle” brought on by an inefficient and costly state department. He noted that the DOT is the same department that built one of the nation’s most expensive highways ever, Interstate H-3, which cost $1.3 billion.

“[DOT] is known to be inefficient and it’s just unacceptable,” said Coleman. “The public needs to demand better results.”

Public Officials Rally

Tom Berg, the former Honolulu councilman for Leeward Oahu, played a crucial role in delaying the project for one year starting last July, allowing the community time to voice their concerns. However, Frenzel said support from public officials these days has been hard to come by.

But Berg’s successor Kymberly Pine said she has made efforts to follow in Berg’s footsteps since she was elected to the District 1 seat, which includes Makaha, Waianae, Ewa, Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Honokai, Hale, Ko Olina, Nanukali, Maili, Keaau and Makua.

“I’m trying to help with the alternative mauka route…but we need to study it,” said Pine. “We don’t know yet if this [alternate route] will cost more taxpayer dollars, but if the community is willing to pay, then… we need to find out more.”

She made asked the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization to authorize a feasibility study of the mauka route, which the committee unanimously approved.

Transportation department officials say that an extended study would cost more money and take three to five years, in which time the bridges would continue to deteriorate and become a severe safety threat. The state did conduct an environmental assessment, which is not as comprehensive as an environmental impact statement, but has in the past been deemed “sufficient” for bridge replacement projects, according to state officials.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents Makaha and other Waianae Coast neighborhoods, said she agrees the alternate mauka route is a safer option.

“It’s terrible the way the highway is built, it literally runs through the beach,” said Shimabukuro. “To get to your car or to the showers, you have to cross the highway where people are speeding.”

The senator also had concerns that runoff from the highway is causing more and more sand to erode every year, she said. One year, the city had to hire private bulldozers to move sand from the east end of the beach to the west side. Putting the highway through the middle of the beach will only make things worse, she said.

Shimabukuro said she has lobbied to stop the project or at least have the DOT more seriously consider the safety and environment of Makaha beach. But she hasn’t had much luck because the project comes from the department level, not from the Legislature. She said:

“I have urged DOT to at least slant the bridge towards mauka direction, but they can’t due to liability concerns…These wooden bridges are a number one priority project because of the fear that they’re going to break and people will get hurt, and then the state will be sued.”

Still, Frenzel is asking community members to contact their state and county representatives to express their concerns about Makaha Beach.

“It’s the best beach on the island,” he said. “It’s an international and historic jewel that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.