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HANALEI, Kauai — Repairing damage to historic Kuhio Highway — greater than first realized — will take many months and access to the road’s key tourist attractions probably won’t be available until deep into the traditional summer visitor season.
That is the takeaway message in a newly disclosed state Department of Transportation document.
But at the same time, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and many community people on Kauai are coming to realize that the devastating storm that struck the North Shore over three days beginning April 13 actually created an opportunity to refocus on tourist congestion.
The storm, according to this reasoning, possibly turns out to enable positive change that might not have otherwise come about for years into the future.
A new master plan for the Haena State Park area of the island is expected to be considered by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources at its May 25 meeting on Oahu. The plan must ultimately be approved by the governor.
The plan would limit access to the park to 900 people per day — down from more than 2,000 — and require most visitors who do not live on island to accept shuttle transportation from parking facilities as far as Princeville.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the plan had been approved. In fact, it is awaiting action by the BLNR. The story also referred to other areas near the park – Kalalau Trail, Limahuli Garden and Kee and Makua (Tunnels) beaches — and some readers inferred those areas are included in the state park plan, which they are not.
The plan had languished for all of the usual budgetary reasons, but the sudden availability of $100 million in new state emergency storm relief aid for Kauai may turn out to be the ultimate game-changer. It could resolve the affordability problems all at once and open the way for a far more environmentally sustainable lifestyle at some of Kauai’s most revered residential and visitor locations.
The highway was reopened on a very limited basis last week. Several times a day, caravans of vehicles owned by residents of the area from Hanalei to Haena are escorted through the most heavily damaged areas of the road. Users must get special placards for their windshields. Enforcement has been strict.
The road was so devastated that short sections of it must, essentially, be rebuilt with new, heavily reinforced retaining walls. Two such spots were identified originally. But Larry Dill, the DOT’s engineer in charge of Kauai highway operations, said on Tuesday that crews may have discovered a third section that will require the same highly technical and expensive treatment.
Engineers are trying to complete their evaluation of the newly discovered zone.
DOT has also made a fundamental change in its tactical approach. Just after the storm, the department announced it was bringing in Acrow bridges — a type of prefabricated span — similar to those already in place at three locations on the affected section of Kuhio Highway. The three temporary spans would have been put in place while three other bridges — all old and incapable of carrying substantial loads safely — are replaced.
The plan is essentially being developed on the fly. Its details today may not be its details tomorrow.
That has made it virtually impossible to determine final cost estimates, though, Dill said, the state expects more than 90 percent to come from the federal government. The price will surely be tens of millions of dollars. In fact, $32 million was already budgeted for just replacement of three temporary bridges in the Wainiha area.
Once the three old bridges are replaced, work will begin on installing long awaited permanent replacements for three additional bridges. That trio has consisted of temporary Acrow bridges for several years, but a master plan calls for new permanent replacements that will, among other things, straighten out a key North Shore bottleneck.
All of the bridges are one-lane, a reality local people have fought successfully to preserve, both because it retains the rural flavor of the highway and functions, effectively, as traffic calming technology. Complicating the process is that Kuhio Highway from the Hanalei River Bridge to the end of the road is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Details of the necessary and technically challenging repairs were described in a 35-page document that appears to have been created as a PowerPoint presentation. Entitled “North Kauai Emergency Flood Repairs” and dated May 3, it was circulated to a limited number of recipients early this week.
The freshly disclosed presentation identifies two places on the road, in Wainiha and near Lumahai, where the storm washed away much of the road surface and the underlying soil and rock all the way down to the beach below.
Although both spots have undergone emergency stabilization, neither will be capable of carrying loads heavier than 5 tons on one lane so narrow that using it requires an escort vehicle. At these points, the document describes complicated repair techniques that would use “soil nails” — steel bars 8 inches in diameter and as long as 38 feet driven into the hillside.
The stabilized hillside would be covered with two inches of concrete sprayed into place. After that, a new outside retaining wall, 12 inches thick, would be constructed and backfilled with what are described as “geofoam blocks,” a material not used in Hawaii before. Huge boulders will be dropped at the bottom of the slope to help keep the new retaining walls in place.
One of the sites chosen for this technique would require a new outside wall 40 feet high. The second wall will rise 25 feet. Specifications for the newly discovered potential third site for such a repair have not been developed but it is also at a point on the highway where the embankment is steep.
In addition to the elaborate retaining wall and soil nails, a dozen other places on the highway will require more conventional bracing of slopes above the roadway. It will use smaller soil nails and wire mesh, Dill said.
But getting materials to the site is impossible given the low weight ratings of three historic bridges, at Waikoko, Waipa and Waiolo streams. Several years ago, a plan was developed to replace those bridges, bypassing them temporarily with Acrow temporary spans.
But in the three weeks since the storm hit, these plans have undergone heavy — and, Dill cautioned, still ongoing — revision.
DOT, according to Dill and a department spokesperson, now plans to build full replacements for all three bridges, including one at a wetland adjacent site so difficult that the new bridge will have to be built directly on top of the old bridge.
Dill and DOT’s headquarters in Honolulu were reluctant to commit to firm time estimates on how long it will take for Kuhio Highway to reopen on anything more than a very limited basis for use primarily by people who can prove they live in the area.
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho has issued an order closing all vacation rentals from Hanalei to Haena for at least the rest of May and, apparently, probably much longer.
Dill said the highway won’t be ready for normal two-direction traffic for at least three to five months. Additional sources within DOT and others familiar with the situation project a closure that could continue for at least four to six months.
A shutdown of that duration places at risk all visitor access to the major tourist attractions of the North Shore.
“What a stupendous opportunity,” said Alan Carpenter, the DLNR official in charge of implementing the Haena State Park Master Plan.
Numerous community voices, including Makaala Kaaumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, said local people emphatically support placing the new tourism limitations in place now.
“I think we’re well positioned due to the economic importance of the parks at the end of that road,” Carpenter said.
Given the description of the needed repairs in the newly disclosed DOT document, it is difficult to believe that tourists driving individual rental cars could be safe on Kuhio Highway for the foreseeable future and that some kind of mandatory shuttle system will be the only access possible.
More pragmatically, Carpenter noted that the storm destroyed parts of the parking lots at Kee Beach and put the restroom out of action. Feared rock slides down onto the main Kee parking area materialized exactly as the master plan projected. Parking and comfort facilities would be relocated and replaced under the master plan.
Carpenter said it would make no sense to repair what exists now, only to bulldoze and replace it in a few years.
Polly Phillips, a Wainiha activist and longtime North Shore resident, was blunt. “There is no rush to open the park up until a plan is initiated and implemented,” she said, “and the community has healed enough to accept visitors.”
Phillips has used the new residents-only daily convoy system to get into Hanalei for the first time in several weeks.
“I appreciate and am happy with the convoy system,” she said. “It is not safe for people to be just out there on their own as the road lacks adequate guard rails and the mountains are raw.”
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