PUNA, Hawaii Island – Broken and trashed vehicles are becoming common sights along Big Island roads, costing motorists millions for government programs that struggle to curb a growing problem statewide.
“Abandoned vehicles are everywhere on our island,” said police Maj. Robert Wagner.
Finding one is much easier than, say, spotting Hawaii’s state bird, the nene goose. Driving just 5 miles from downtown Hilo revealed the first of several derelict hulks discovered during a recent trip through lower Puna. This car, seemingly close to driving condition with windows and wheels still in place, had already been tagged by police, earning a 24-hour removal warning and two citations.
Big Island police recorded 1,221 abandoned vehicles in 2017, the last full year for which statistics are readily available, and more than double the 603 tallied during 2015. The first half of 2018 was on record pace with 643.
A typical abandoned vehicle transforms over time, said Geneva Jackson, who handles most of her community’s junk car calls as a board member of the nonprofit, volunteer-run Hawaiian Acres Road Corp.
The process starts with the wheels being removed and all windows getting smashed, she said. Often the vehicle ends up being set on fire, and sometimes flipped over to ease removal of its catalytic converter coveted for scrap value.
Threats of fines have not kept owners from dumping their vehicles, like this one that Hawaiian Acres residents said had been in their Kurtistown community for less than five days, sufficient time for it to be vandalized and flipped over.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
“We have a horrible problem with abandoned vehicles,” said Jackson, adding she planned to report three newly junked cars found in the Kurtistown subdivision, which has about 75 miles of mostly dirt roads.
Hawaiian Acres, with the help of police, established a neighborhood watch last month and launched email@example.com, where people can email information about suspected abandoned vehicles that is then forwarded to police for faster processing.
“What I’ve seen this year alone, the Police Department has been on it as far as removing abandoned vehicles,” Jackson said.
Vehicles remaining 24 hours after being marked by police as abandoned become the subject of reports sent first to a police supervisor for approval and then to the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management to arrange removal, Wagner said.
Located along Stainback Highway near the entrance to the Big Island’s only zoo, this abandoned car had collected two police citations and a warning notice it would be towed in 24 hours.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
The department’s abandoned vehicle program is costing about $2.4 million a year, including $650,000 for disposal and $320,000 for towing, said Bill Kucharski, county environmental management director.
Program funding comes from the $12 yearly fee charged for registering a car, truck or trailer.
Since 2005, Hawaii County has processed 12,700 abandoned vehicles, said Kurcharski, who noted yearly numbers vary based on the fluctuating cost recyclers charge to take one. Last year 678 vehicles were processed, while this year could be 700 to 800, he said.
The county’s current disposal cost is about $290 per vehicle, less than half the amount paid during the last contract period, with the vendor obligated to remove vehicles islandwide within 72 hours of receiving notification, Kucharski said.
“This is one of the more difficult and frustrating aspects of the job,” he said. “I call this ‘big litter.’”
Hawaii County has offered to pay an owner’s disposal costs in the past, but those temporary amnesty programs have ended.
“It does affect my district more than most,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman of Puna, who earlier this year was among co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1297, which would have authorized counties to fine the legal owner of a vehicle deemed abandoned.
The bill passed both houses, but eventually stalled in conference committee.
Believing counties should take the lead in addressing abandoned vehicles, Ruderman said he expects the attempt to levy fines will be taken up during next year’s legislative session that starts in January.
But not one unique to the Big Island, as Civil Beat has been reporting for the past few years.
“We currently have a backlog of approximately 152 abandoned/derelict vehicles scheduled to be removed from state and county roadways,” Kauai County spokeswoman Kim Tamaoka said in an email.
A “perpetual” backlog means it may take four to eight weeks to address an abandoned vehicle complaint, Tamaoka said, noting the county is adding a second abandoned/derelict vehicle coordinator.
Maui County is facing similar problems.
“Abandoned vehicle numbers have increased three times in the last six years,” said Tamara Farnsworth, manager of Maui County’s Environmental Protection and Sustainability Division.
Maui has successfully recouped processing expenses from 15 percent to 20 percent of derelict owners and is exploring placing a “hold” on offenders’ registration or license renewals, Farnsworth said.
Maui had been auctioning off abandoned vehicles, but decided a May 31 sale would be the last because it lost money while selling just 165 vehicles at six auctions held during the past year.
“There were some vehicles sold at auction that we were seeing abandoned on the street,” Farnsworth said.
A 2018 change to state law stopped requiring counties to liquidate abandoned vehicles at public auction. Still, Hawaii County is holding one in Kona, with bids due by June 24.
Solutions have proven to be elusive, since certain owners can’t or won’t pay disposal costs. Another factor is that some of the junked vehicles were stolen, stripped and trashed. Reports are common on Big Island Thieves Facebook page, an internet site boasting 54,000 members.
“Generally speaking we do not make an abandoned vehicle report on a stolen vehicle, we recover it as evidence,” Wagner said.
Geneva Jackson, a volunteer member of the Hawaiian Acres Road Corp.’s board of directors, said the Mountain View community has set up a website to report abandoned vehicles, which are discovered at the rate of about one per week.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
“A way to reduce abandoned vehicles would be to have a place for people to take them with no cost involved for those dropping them off,” Wagner said when asked if the Police Department has a solution. “But that would cost the county.”
Another suggestion came from Jackson, who said the county should operate salvage yards like the municipal ones she used to visit in Southern California.
“My husband and I would go there to wrench for what we needed,” she said of obtaining discounted parts popular with budget-conscious owners.
Others say the responsibility to end illegal dumping lies entirely in one place.
“It’s the kuleana of every vehicle owner to factor in the cost of disposal when they purchase it,” Farnsworth said.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org