Less than an hour before Tuesday’s free, mass testing for COVID-19 was set to start on the H-3 freeway, federal highway officials emailed the state a letter denying its request to close the roadway for the event.

Hawaii transportation officials went ahead with the event anyway.

They plan to close the H-3 again on Thursday for their second planned round of public surge-testing, despite the denial from the Federal Highway Administration’s Hawaii Division.

Vehicles enter the Kaneohe bound lanes of the H3 Tunnels to participate in the surge COVID-19 testing. September 1, 2020
Vehicles enter the Kaneohe-bound lanes of an H-3 tunnel to participate in the surge COVID-19 testing Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Ed Sniffen, the state’s deputy director for highways, made the request to his Hawaii-based counterparts in the FHWA on Friday. The surge testing staged at the H-3’s Tetsuo Harano Tunnel is a collaboration between state and county officials, as well as the National Guard and federal health officials including the U.S. Surgeon General’s office.

“We believe H-3 is needed for testing as all other sites used to date, whether it be for COVID-19 testing, food distribution or other public benefit efforts have resulted in significant traffic, delay and safety impacts to the immediate site and neighboring facilities,” Sniffen wrote.

Ralph Rizzo, administrator for FHWA’s Hawaii Division, denied the request Tuesday. His response letter cited safety concerns as well as blocking the main access route between Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay.

“We are extremely concerned about the impacts that the closure and temporary alternative use of Interstate H-3 will have, as well as the precedent that closing H-3 for health testing will set,” Rizzo wrote in his denial.

Deputy Director of the Department of Transportation Ed Sniffen speaks during H3 tunnels surge COVID-19 testing press conference with Governor Ige. September 1, 2020
Hawaii DOT Deputy Director Ed Sniffen speaks during a press conference at a COVID-19 testing site at an H-3 tunnel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The letter states that if Hawaii fails to comply, the FHWA could withhold funding for local highway improvements.

The state DOT received the letter at 8:15 a.m., according to agency spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige — some 45 minutes before the surge testing began. The state will be sending FHWA a response detailing its decision to move ahead, she added.

“We don’t know any other spot on Oahu that can take the volumes that H3 can” not just for testing but for vehicles to queue, Sniffen said Tuesday as the event got underway. “I have five miles of run-up on each side of the tunnel that allow me to queue that many vehicles if necessary.”

The “megasite” could accommodate as many as 8,000 tests a day, Sniffen added.

Rizzo referred questions to FHWA’s Washington headquarters late Tuesday.

“The Federal Highway Administration communicates directly with our State partners and Hawaii DOT is aware of the agency’s position,” an agency spokesman responded in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working with the State to identify alternative options.”

Read HDOT’s initial response to close the freeway and FHWA’s response here:

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