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Three years after a driver killed Kaulana Werner, striking the 19-year-old near his family home and dragging his body before fleeing the scene, Werner’s father, Ed, regularly posts his signs along Farrington Highway.
About a month ago, a driver plowed over a 35 mph speed limit sign down the road, Werner said. A couple of months before that, another driver veered into the brand-new “no crosswalk” sign in front of his house. It had only been up a few hours.
Ed Werner does what he can to make Farrington safer, in memory of his son, trying his best to prevent more tragedies.
But the poorly designed, major highway remains an unavoidable, hazardous part of life in a corner of Oahu that’s been historically underserved. Its five lanes cut through the Leeward Coast’s small-town communities without medians or traffic islands.
It lacks sufficient, safe crosswalks for local residents, leading to plenty of jaywalking, community members say. The shoulders are too narrow; the sidewalks nonexistent along most stretches.
“We’re a residential area on a highway,” Werner, 57, tells me as we watch drivers whiz right by his home on the state-owned road.
“This road is dangerous. It always was dangerous,” he adds. “This is a raceway right here.”
From 2012 to 2017, state Department of Transportation data shows 13 of Oahu’s 108 pedestrian fatalities occurred on Farrington.
One of the latest fatal crashes occurred in January. A 29-year-old man was killed while crossing Farrington in Maili. He was thrown into oncoming traffic. It’s right where a 17-year-old girl was struck and killed two years prior.
“Dude, it is like a game of Frogger,” says Makaha resident Tim Riley, referencing the classic video game in which a frog has to cross the street without getting squashed.
“It’s like, can I make it across alive? It is dangerous. It’s one of the, if not the most dangerous areas to walk in the state.”
While Farrington poses an existential threat, it also paradoxically serves as a lifeline.
It’s the only way in and out of the Leeward Coast for its nearly 50,000 residents. More than a third of them are Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, according to U.S. Census figures, with many of them living on homestead lands. (There are nearly 1,500 homesteads along the coast, one of the largest concentrations in the state.)
(Correction: The above figures reflect the geographic area stretching from the Kahe power plant to Kaena Point. This story initially contained inaccurate figures.)
For years there’s been talk of building a secondary access road, but the most recent efforts collapsed amid community disagreement over where that road should go.
Like other parts of Hawaii, the state simply hasn’t kept pace providing sufficient road capacity to handle all the new development there.
“I think our community has been neglected when it comes to infrastructure across the board,” says state Rep. Cedric Gates, who represents Makaha and Maili.
Meanwhile, the state DOT has recently been making incremental safety upgrades on Farrington, part of a $13 million repaving effort that’s underway.
From Makaha to Nanakuli, it’s removing about 10 un-signalized crosswalks deemed to be unsafe while installing more crosswalk signs and rumble strips to alert drivers who stray near oncoming traffic, among other improvements.
Still, those efforts don’t fundamentally reshape the highway in a way that might calm the traffic and keep pedestrians safer.
The plan includes just one small raised median and traffic island for that approximately 11-mile stretch, to go near the Waianae Boat Harbor.
There’s no new sidewalks and not nearly enough new lighting to brighten the shoulder.
As I left Werner’s home last week, I drove past two boys on the highway’s narrow mauka shoulder walking home from the beach in the darkness, fishing poles in hand. I didn’t see them until my car was about to pass by.
“If that was a county road that would be the first thing on my list that I would be trying to tackle, because that road is uncomfortable for anyone,” Renee Espiau, the city and county’s Complete Streets coordinator, offered during Civil Beat’s recent panel on pedestrian safety.
“Whether you’re walking, driving, riding the bus, hanging out at the beach — that road is awful.”
As long as Farrington remains the only option for drivers the safety situation there won’t meaningfully improve, several Leeward residents and community leaders said this week.
In 2017, Gates, then a freshman lawmaker, tried to revive the effort with House Bill 1378, which would have required the state DOT to develop plans for a secondary access road, one that would likely run from Kapolei to Nanakuli. The measure stalled, however.
Gates said he then used much of his new political capital convincing the Legislature’s leaders to include $5 million in the state’s capital budget for those plans instead. He hoped the effort would lead to a parallel secondary access road costing the state $25 million to $50 million, depending on how many federal dollars it received.
“That was basically my baby — my political baby,” Gates said.
But even if a road through Nanakuli would benefit Gates’ Makaha district farther up the coast, Gates doesn’t actually represent Nanakuli. The plan to carve another road through that more southerly neighborhood was met with concern there.
Many residents worried it would only bring more traffic and safety issues, and that it could block access to the schools there, said Rep. Stacelyn Eli. Earlier this year, the local neighborhood board decided to oppose it.
“That broke my heart, honestly,” Gates said. “That’s something I worked on from the jump since getting elected.”
With that initiative dead, it’s unclear what, if anything, happens next. Gates said the next steps could include widening Farrington even more.
“If there are areas with significant community concern then we’ll look at it at any time,” DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said.
“There is a balance between mobility and safety. We’re trying to basically be more cautious and go more on the safety aspect, while keeping in mind the needs of the community for mobility through the area.”
About two years ago, Waianae Coast residents and businesses formed E Maka’ala Waianae Crossing Flags, a grassroots group that maintains flags so that pedestrians might cross more visibly up and down the highway.
Last week, one of the organizers posted on Facebook that the initiative has “sizzled out.” She’s expecting a baby, she wrote, and her family has neither the energy nor the space to maintain the flags and supplies, which constantly need replacing.
Farther down the coast in Nanakuli, Werner continues his one-man campaign to hold back the surge of speeding vehicles.
He regularly replenishes his signs, hoping to convince the drivers who’ve broken free of the H-1 traffic to slow down. In the afternoon, they’ve got the sun in their eyes as they fly up the coast.
Some drive under the influence. The 22-year-old driver who killed Kaulana, a standout Kamehameha Schools football wide receiver who was home visiting from college at the time of the crash, is suspected to have been drunk when the crash occurred. Her trial is still pending.
Werner said he’s reached out to other local families who’ve had loved ones killed in drunken-driving crashes, forming an informal support group. Sometimes, he joins police at DUI checkpoints, waving signs that encourage people to drive safely.
This year he lobbied for the law to install red-light cameras at intersections. Lawmakers opted to form a committee to study the idea. He’s thinking about lobbying to reduce the speed limit to 30 mph along Farrington.
And he’s considering applying for a permit to install a billboard that might replace his “slow down” signs.
Through lingering pain and grief, he acts. He wishes local officials would be more proactive. They seem to ramp up enforcement whenever someone is killed, he says. He wishes they would do more.
Nanakuli has one of the state’s largest concentrations of Hawaiian homesteads. It has two landfills nearby but just one park where its youth sports teams practice — the same teams that Kaulana used to play on before he went on to shine at Kamehameha.
“We don’t get enough attention on the Leeward Coast,” Werner tells me. “What can we do to slow everybody down on the road? I cannot do it myself.”
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