As parts of Kamehameha Highway collapse into the ocean on Oahu’s Windward side, there’s been little done to prevent the same thing from happening at a more crowded spot: Laniakea Beach.

The highway there is vital for anyone trying to get across the North Shore (nearly 13,000 cars a day), yet officials say sea level rise is already causing the critical passage to erode. They expect the road at Laniakea to be underwater by the end of the century.

“We’re going to have the same problems as Hauula and Kaaawa some day,” North Shore Neighborhood Board Chairwoman Kathleen Pahinui said last week. “Sea level rise is a fact — it’s not a fiction.”

The looming crisis, along with Laniakea’s traffic woes and safety hazards, has dominated North Shore conversation for years.

“It’s gotten to the point where people are sick of it and sick of talking about it,” Pahinui said. “We just want it fixed.”



Still, the state has been reluctant to move forward on what’s sure to be a costly and difficult long-term solution. Planning and environmental studies have dragged on for more than a decade, left in limbo as the Department of Transportation pursued other priorities.

Now, there are signs that might be changing.

Last week, Hawaii’s top highways official said the DOT intends to use revenues from last year’s increase in rental car fees to fund the so-called “full” highway realignment at Laniakea.

“We’re committed to it,” Deputy Director for Highways Ed Sniffen said.

“Now there’s a light, because the Legislature gave us additional funding, additional authority to move forward on different things. So we want to be good for it.”

The project would bend the highway mauka from Laniakea to neighboring Chun’s Reef. That would involve moving the road through land owned by the city and Kamehameha Schools, including properties with significant cultural sites such as iwi kupuna (ancestral human remains) and heiau (ancient Hawaiian temple complexes).

“It would be an arduous process and take a lot of community engagement,” North Shore Rep. Sean Quinlan said last week.

The work is now estimated to cost $65 million. Notably, it appeared for the first time in years in Hawaii’s Transportation Improvement Program.

The obscure report is essentially the Bible of Hawaii’s large-scale, expensive transportation projects. Any capital improvements that aim to get federal funding must first go through the TIP. The multi-year document undergoes repeated, extensive reviews by local officials and community members.

A pretty big catch remains, however. DOT says it will only pursue the full realignment if it can put guardrails on the existing highway first.

Laniakea Beach Kamehameha Highway North Shore
Naupaka shrubs separate Kamehameha Highway from Laniakea Beach. The road is already eroding there. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

The move would block locals and visitors from parking at Laniakea and darting across to the beach — often dodging cars in the process.

It’s sure to receive pushback from community members who demand a better solution from state and city officials that addresses the safety concerns there without such draconian restrictions on public access to the beach.

The guardrails would mimic the controversial concrete barriers that DOT installed at Laniakea in 2013 and then left in place for more than a year before a lawsuit forced their removal.

If DOT can’t put up the guardrails, it would likely pursue a smaller-scale realignment that addresses the safety issues and only slightly moves the road inland. Versions of this approach have been called the “wiggle road.”  That option would cost about $8 million and take several years to complete, Sniffen said.

Once it’s done, DOT wouldn’t pursue the full-scale realignment, he added. It would be up to DOT officials in later decades to move forward with it.

The wiggle road would be seasonally flooded by rising waters within the next 30 years, Quinlan said. It’s not a long-term fix to deal with sea-level rise and looming transportation challenges on the North Shore.

VIDEO: Blake McElheny, who grew up on the North Shore, talks about community concerns over Laniakea.

Quinlan’s North Shore colleague in the Legislature, Sen. Gil Riviere, remains skeptical that the DOT would pursue a tough, long-term fix after it gets the guardrails up, following years of little progress on Laniakea.

“We are long overdue for some short term relief, and I’m very concerned that there seems to be no desire to move forward on a long-term solution,” Riviere said last week.

Sniffen, however, insisted that DOT is committed — the agency simply didn’t have a large enough pot of money until the rental car fees. And while DOT has hundreds of millions of backlogged federal dollars that it’s trying to spend down, those dollars are tied to other projects, according to Sniffen.

“We’re committed to it. This is the direction we’re moving in because the full funding came in,” he said.

DOT does not have a timeline on when the full alignment might be done or when it would be completed. Sniffen is slated to brief the North Shore Neighborhood Board at its March 24 meeting.

Chaos And Turtle Traffic

North Shore community members have implored city and state officials for years to create a sensible short-term fix to the Laniakea traffic problems, while coming up with a long-term solution for the erosion.

It’s a popular local surf spot and attracts more than 600,000 people every year. On most days, it’s crowded with visitors eager to see the Hawaiian green sea turtles that regularly feed on the seaweed in the shorebreak and pull themselves ashore.

Many visitors park their cars in a 200-yard-long dirt patch on the highway’s mauka side, part of a city-owned parcel designated for park land. Then, since there’s no crosswalks, they haphazardly cross the two-lane road to the beach.

It’s a mismanaged and often chaotic setup that slows traffic in both directions.

“It comes and goes. It really bothers people when you have kids who need to get to school and jobs to go to,” Pahinui said. “It’s an imposition on people.”

In August, a 10-year-old boy was seriously injured while crossing the highway at Laniakea when he was hit by a car and thrown as far as 15 feet. Officials say he was fortunate to fully recover from the collision.

Traffic by Laniakea Beach on Oahu's North Shore where visitors stop and watch for turtles. 12.18.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
North Shore community members for years have called for a fix to the chaos at Laniakea Beach, which causes severe traffic delays. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In November, the North Shore’s Waialua and Sunset community associations signed a “consensus statement” urging DOT to return the concrete barriers but leave openings at either ends so that vehicles could enter, park and exit on the mauka side.

The statement also called for a temporary pedestrian signalized crossing, plus better signage and enforcement. Opponents who forced the DOT to remove the barriers in the first place also endorsed the approach. The North Shore Neighborhood Board is slated to consider whether to sign on as well at its March meeting.

Sniffen, however, said the modified barriers approach wouldn’t work.

The stretch of road where people are crossing is more than 1,000 feet long, and the agency has found that people generally won’t use a crosswalk if it’s more than 400 feet away. Even if they put a crosswalk at the midpoint, there’s no safe walk on the makai side, he said.

Meanwhile, DOT is working with the state court, the plaintiffs in the barriers lawsuit and city and state land officials to get the approvals it needs to put the guardrails up.

When researchers from the University of Hawaii Manoa — including Panos Prevedouros, the chairman of the engineering department — studied Laniakea last year, their report concluded that a fix would likely “require the cooperation of at least two agencies, which makes the deployment of actions more complex and time consuming.”

Kicking The Can Down The Road

As the years have passed, North Shore residents have grown more frustrated at the lack of any real progress.

“What we have are a city and state who don’t want to work together to solve things,” said Bob Leinau, who’s lived there since the 1960s. “It’s not OK. And what’s so frustrating is there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.”

The Legislature provided $1.2 million for a traffic and environmental study in 2007. DOT didn’t use those dollars, so they lapsed. Lawmakers provided another $1.7 million two years later.

Most of that went to a $1.4 million contract with engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff to do the study. So far, no final report has come from the Parsons contract.

DOT also disbanded the Laniakea Task Force — a group of North Shore community members recruited to meet and discuss the issue — but the agency never told the task force members it had been cancelled.

The situation has long frustrated Riviere, who recently filed a public records request with the DOT to see how exactly the Laniakea money’s been spent.

“It went to consultants — it’s all gone,” Riviere said last week. “It’s our only highway for the region. Everyone who transits the North Shore is impacted, and it’s unconscionable that the department is resistant to solving this problem.”

VIDEO: Sen. Gil Riviere presses DOT Director Ed Sniffen for an update on the Laniakea work during a 2016 Legislative hearing.


Last week, Sniffen said the DOT has been holding back the final report by design. Construction would have to start within three years of its release, but the funding hasn’t been there. If construction doesn’t start in time, they’ll have to start over and do a new report.

Under Gov. David Ige’s administration, the policy has been to maintain existing roads — “to ensure that the roads we have now work better” — instead of creating new ones that the state can’t afford to maintain, Sniffen said.

Finally, however, there’s $3 million in the latest TIP report for design work at Lanieakea. “Now we can start planning this out,” Sniffen said.

For years, the TIP also included money to fund shoreline protection at Hauula and Kaaawa — but those projects never moved forward. Sniffen said that DOT had hoped to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on that protection but “we couldn’t get it done.”

The recent emergency repairs have been done entirely with state dollars.

The state agency then partnered with UH instead to plan a shoreline protection strategy.

University researchers found it would cost at least $15 billion to protect Hawaii’s vulnerable state roads from sea level rise.

“I don’t envy him — he has a very difficult job,” Pahinui said of Sniffen. “But DOT, they’re in charge and they need to start being more proactive than reactive.”

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