Protesters have been gathering along a narrow strip of pavement between Farrington Highway and Makaha Beach Park for over a week demanding that the highway be set back from the coastline and rerouted around the park.

Farrington Highway cuts through the park, forcing people to cross the highway to access the park’s bathrooms, boat storage and parking lot.

“It’s a crazy safety issue,” said Bunky Bakutis, one of the organizers of the protest. He also has concerns about sea level rise and storms washing stone barriers alongside the highway into the surf, which he said made it dangerous to swim in 2016.

Bakutis has been asking for the highway to be set back from the shoreline for years, but was galvanized to organize the protest after learning that the Hawaii Department of Transportation is scheduled to start $19.3 million in repairs on two bridges near the park.

“If they spend that money rebuilding those bridges this highway is going to be here forever,” he said.

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Bunky Bakutis 'It's so sad that we're discriminated against this way.'
Years of concerns Many protesters said they feel the west side is forgotten.
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Kuʻulei Mahelona-Beauford 'I'm proud of where I'm from.'

Bakutis and other protesters point to a 1998 master plan, which calls for the highway to be rerouted around the park. Since then, there have been at least five petitions to implement the master plan and representatives from the area have unsuccessfully sought funding and commitment to the project for years. A feasibility study on road realignment is almost five years behind deadline and in danger of being canceled, which has left residents frustrated and disillusioned with government promises.

Plans For The Park

A strong storm in 1982 damaged a pavilion of showers, changing rooms and bathrooms at the beach park, and the city didn’t start researching repairs until 1996. A newspaper article from the time outlined how instead of forming a plan and then presenting it to the community, the city was taking the novel approach of working with the community to develop a plan.

The end result of those conversations between the city and the community was clear: rerouting Farrington Highway around the beach park was a top priority. The final 1998 master plan presented to the Department of Parks and Recreation included a map showing a highway route around the beach park.

Bunky Bakutis took this photo in 2016 after a big storm eroded sand and washed concrete highway barriers into the surf. Courtesy: Bunky Bakutis

“That’s what we’ve always wanted,” said Richard Cayer, a long-time Makaha resident who sat on a community board providing input on the plan in the 1990s. “I barely made it out of here during Hurricane Iniki because there was a foot of water on my tires and that’s going to happen again if you keep that highway.”

In 1998 the Department of Parks and Recreation committed to lobbying the Legislature to reroute Farrington Highway further inland “to protect the highway from future wave damage, improve safety for its park users and provide better park facilities for this world renown surfing beach park.”

In a written statement spokesman Nathan Serota said the department needs to assess whether site conditions have changed in the 23 years since the plan was finalized, but said the department supports “plans for park improvements or expansions that benefit our island community’s recreation facilities.”

Community Input Not Enough

Former councilwoman Kymberly Pine, who represented the area for eight years, said people who believe that including moving the highway in a master plan means it was definitely going to happen are misunderstanding the government process.

Spearheaded by Pine, the Honolulu City Council allocated $2 million in 2013 to “plan, design, construct, inspect and provide equipment for implementation of the plan,” but ultimately former Mayor Kirk Caldwell vetoed the allocation.

Pine said that while support for the project was strong at the beginning of the legislative process, she didn’t hear much from the community after the mayoral veto.

“You can’t just go on social media, you can’t just do one protest,” she said. “You have to follow the process the whole way through.”

“Every effort has to be made to make it important and from my experiences they’ll do the beginning thing and not do the follow-through of lobbying the people that’s going to take them through the project,” she said.

Protesters waved signs and encouraged beach-goers to sign their petition last week. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Makaha resident Cayer agrees that over the years community attention on the master plan has waxed and waned as the strongest voices for the reroute retired, passed away or lost interest. But he’s one of many questioning if the government is functioning properly if it takes significant, sustained pressure to implement something the community has requested for more than a quarter century.

“It seems like a common-sense issue to me,” said Momi Keaulana, wife of famous surfer Buffalo Keaulana who has been advocating for park improvements for decades. “We have people visit us from all over the world and it’s embarrassing how this famous surfing beach is treated.”

Next Steps

Although a 2019 report did not place Farrington Highway on the list of roads most affected by sea-level rise, Matthew Gonser, the new Chief Resilience Officer at the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, said that his office wants to find solutions for communities who are worried about how climate change will impact critical infrastructure in their neighborhoods.

We’re certainly aware of the longer term viability of the highway and we want to ensure that the communities farther along on the highway aren’t cut off,” he said.

Any road relocation requires multiple agencies to collaborate and the first step is often a feasibility study to approximate costs, required permits and timeframes.

In 2013 the Honolulu City Council allocated $91,000 for such a study, which was due in 2016. However it wasn’t started until 2018 and is only 10% complete, according to the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The study is currently on pause due to the pandemic and may never be done since the project faces cancellation in 2022.

Westside

The Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization is accepting community comment on the project until April 16 and continuation of the study is scheduled for discussion at a policy board meeting in May.

At the Legislature, a proposal to pause bridge replacement and finalize a long-term plan for Farrington Highway and Makaha Beach Park recently passed the House Transportation Committee and was sent to the House Finance Committee, where it’s scheduled for decision making on Tuesday.

This is the third time the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cedric Gates, has put a proposal to implement the 1998 master plan before the Legislature, and he hopes that this is the year the Legislature commits.

“There’s been a lot of broken promises,” he said. “We need to recognize as a legislative body as well as government as a whole that when we say things to a community they expect these things to happen.”

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