Rough, pitted and perpetually clogged Kamehameha and Farrington highways in and around the Pearl City-Aiea area have been in need of reconstruction for years. Just ask U.S. Rep. Mark Takai who has been advocating for the highways since his early days as a state lawmaker.

Now a first-term congressman, Takai has put forward a request that the Federal Highway Administration allow $100 million in Federal Highway Trust Funds to be used for renovation of Farrington in Waipahu and Kamehameha in Aiea/Pearl City, a total of about 7.3 miles of roadway. Those monies would be drawn from trust fund appropriations dedicated to Hawaii.

While the proposal would fix a major portion of two heavily used highways and provide an opportunity to make aesthetic and safety upgrades along the way with already appropriated funds, it would offer additional benefits, as well.

Rail guideway columns along Farrington Highway as construction moves eastward.  21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Guideway columns rose along Farrington Highway earlier this summer as construction moved eastward on the Honolulu rail project.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

  • Both roads have been used to transport heavy equipment being used on the Honolulu rail project, causing further degradation to the highways. Once that use is complete, the rail project is supposed to rebuild the roads. But rail is nearly $1 billion over budget and looking for ways to cut costs, making the path toward these road improvements uncertain and potentially lengthy.
  • Because Farrington and Kamehameha won’t be used for heavy equipment transportation as rail construction moves further south, reconstruction of the highways could start more quickly using trust funds, bringing long-awaited upgrades to highway travel in particularly congested and heavily traveled sections of the roads. Those upgrades would include new and more attractive medians and pedestrian walkways, bringing cosmetic value as well as greater utility to the roadways.

The state Department of Transportation — known neither for its innovation nor its lightning speed — threw cold water on the congressman’s proposal through a condescending written statement from Edward Sniffen, newly appointed deputy director of its Highways Division, who seemingly could only imagine the potential use of highway trust funds as a rail bailout coming at the expense of other projects.

“The state is still running through its prioritization processes, and has not yet reached any agreements to fund any proposed betterments to state highways through HART,” snipped Sniffen, referring to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is responsible for the rail project. “If the state does decide to fund work on state highways through HART, funding for the betterment work would come out of future federal funding apportionments, not from the pipeline of obligated funds. … the state is not considering any funding to HART that funds rail. HDOT is only looking at funding state highway improvements.”

It’s the sort of response that underlies our horrible traffic realities and that drains efforts to improve the environment on our roadways of any sense of urgency. Honolulu perpetually ranks among the nation’s worst metropolitan areas in traffic congestion, yet new thinking on how we might better that awful circumstance seems too often to be smothered before it can get a fair hearing.

Takai’s proposal represents a potentially innovative approach to finally getting this project done, and on a faster timeline than is likely if the reconstruction is left to HART.

The Federal Highway Trust Fund currently has about $630 million in funding set aside for Hawaii, down from a high of $950 million in 2010. As Sniffen’s statement points out, about $450 million in that pipeline is committed to projects through 2018.

The state is supposed to receive about $160 million in new highway trust funds each year. Takai contends that until the funding backlog is spent down below $400 million, the state won’t get any new highway trust fund monies. Sniffen is “confident” that spending goals will be met, and that “federal funds will not be at risk.”

That this is even a point of contention speaks volumes about how efficiently the state DOT has been in approaching the challenge of maintaining and improving Hawaii’s highways in partnership with the federal government. Significant progress has been made in the first 10 months of the Gov. David Ige administration with the department under the new leadership of Ford Fuchigami. But for commuters stuck in traffic or enduring substandard roadways, more progress can’t come quickly enough.

“This project is as shovel-ready as can be. It’s been approved and is waiting to go,” Takai told Civil Beat last week. “Once the heavy work is done (on the northern end of the rail line), we can go right in. No significant new approvals are still needed.”

A decade ago, state leaders planned to use essentially the same approach to redo these sections of Kamehameha and Farrington — highway trust funds with federal matching money, Takai added. But once the rail project was approved, it was determined that rail would absorb the cost of reconstruction in light of the damage its heavy equipment would inflict on the already rocky roads.

Takai’s proposal represents a potentially innovative approach to finally getting this project done, and on a faster timeline than is likely if the reconstruction is left to HART. It deserves more complete consideration than it would appear the DOT has given it in a written statement from a transportation bureaucrat. Director Fuchigami and Gov. Ige need to ensure it gets that fair hearing.

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