More than two years after state lawmakers set aside $2 million to install a traffic light near a charter school in Pahoa, residents say children are still facing unsafe road conditions because of an ongoing disagreement over whether the state should actually pay for the improvements.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation says it is the responsibility of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science to put a light at the intersection of Highway 130 and Post Office Road. The school meanwhile contends that it doesn’t have the funding, and that maintenance of the widely used road is a community issue.

Pahoa Bypass Road

The intersection of Pahoa Bypass Road and Post Office Road.

Google Earth

The situation has become so troublesome that one local activist started lobbying her representatives last fall for 15 gallons of yellow paint to make a crosswalk herself.

“That’s a good indicator of the public level of frustration and concern,” state Sen. Russell Ruderman said. “The people in charge of the highways won’t do anything, but it’s a very hazardous and dangerous situation. And it’s not just the kids who need it.”

While the standoff continues, the school is ferrying students in a van from one side of the two-lane highway to the other before and after school.

An increasing number of residents though are choosing to walk along Pahoa Bypass, despite a lack of sidewalks, and HAAS Principal Steve Hirakami said he can’t always prevent students from trying to cross the road.

“It’s a pretty dire situation,”  Hirakami said.

A Dangerous Stretch of Road

Pahoa map

HAAS uses a 14-passenger van to ferry students across Pahoa Bypass Road to where the county bus stops.

Google Maps

Highway 130, more commonly known as Pahoa Bypass Road, is the main thoroughfare running through Pahoa — a town of about 1,000 residents on the windward side of Hawaii Island.

Pahoa Bypass is classified by the DOT as a minor arterial roadway, but about 11,000 vehicles use it every day, Ruderman said.

The road is extremely dangerous and becomes nonfunctional several times a week because of accidents or construction-related traffic jams, Ruderman said.

HAAS charter school opened up in 2001 on privately owned agricultural land on Post Office/Homestead Road close to Pahoa Bypass.

At the time, state law said that charter schools did not need to comply with certain land use regulations. A court ruling a few years later changed that, and in 2006 the county informed HAAS that it needed to apply for a special land use permit to stay in operation.

The permit, issued in 2011, mandates that the school install a traffic light at the intersection of Highway 130 and Post Office Road before it can enroll more than 300 students at the site.

Until HAAS reaches that enrollment threshold, the permit states that HAAS needs to employ a crossing guard and use measures like the crossing van to get students across the road.

Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Pahoa school

HAAS school has limited its enrollment growth at its main campus because of requirements that it construct a traffic light at the nearby intersection.

Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences

Because HAAS doesn’t have the funding to install the light, the school has grown its enrollment over the years to roughly 600 by renting satellite space and only using its main campus for older grades.

Although it uses a van and bans students from crossing the road alone, the school hasn’t been able to employ a crossing guard because there is no crosswalk, light or stop sign, Hirakami said.

Ruderman said he wasn’t aware of the school’s land use requirements when he requested the appropriation in 2013, but he’s been trying to persuade the DOT to do the work anyway.

“It’s not fair to expect a small charter school to come up with an extra $1.5 million bucks to keep the highway safe and the kids safe,” Ruderman said.

Even the special use permit notes that as a small charter school, HAAS would likely be unable to pay for the light outright and would need to seek funding partners.

The school has an annual operating budget of around $3.4 million, Hirakami said.

That county stipulation that HAAS install the traffic light is because organizations — and even schools — are expected to reduce their impact on public resources like roads.

“It is the responsibility of the school to implement these mitigation measures,” DOT spokesman Timothy Sakahara said in an email. “HDOT does not use state funds to address land use conditions of private entities.”

Others argue though that the traffic at the intersection is the result of community growth — not just the school.

Although the most pressing concern is student safety, Pahoa resident Sara Steiner — who has been writing letters about the issue — said the intersection has become a bigger community traffic problem.

“People use it all the time,” Steiner said of the two roads. “A few times I was almost run over by large trucks, because I drive a scooter. It’s hard to merge into the traffic.”

The problems were even worse during the lava flow last year, Steiner said, when people were diverted down Post Office Road and then had to merge onto faster-moving traffic on Pahoa Bypass.

The DOT notes that there were no major accidents reported at the intersection between 2012 and 2014. Current year data is unavailable.

But Hirakami and Steiner say the intersection is a regular site of fender benders and traffic backups.

The DOT plans to eventually install turn lanes at the Pahoa Bypass and Post Office Road intersection as part of long-term improvements to the highway, but no sooner than 2018, according to county documents.

That’s not soon enough, Steiner and Hirakami said.

“I don’t want to lose a kid before we get a crosswalk,” Hirakami said.

If residents can’t find someone at the DOT who will be flexible, then the funding will lapse next June, Ruderman said.

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