Efforts by community activists to move Farrington Highway mauka of Makaha Beach park — in accordance with a decades-old plan — have hit a roadblock after an Oahu agency decided to halt a feasibility study and redirect the funding to a traffic study in Ala Moana instead.

“We deserve to be a priority,” said Carmen Guzman-Simpliciano, a lifelong resident of the Westside who has lead petitions demanding  state officials implement a 1998 master plan that called for the highway to be rerouted.

Farrington Highway cuts through the middle of the park, and beachgoers have to cross the dangerous road to access the parking lot, bathrooms and boat storage. Recent rains have flooded the highway and a combination of sea level rise and erosion have swept concrete highway barriers into the ocean.

“It’s not only dangerous, it’s embarrassing,” Guzman-Simpliciano said.

After spending more than $100,000, the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization recently decided not to continue an analysis of how much time and money it would take to reroute the highway around the park.

“The Makaha Beach Realignment Feasibility Study is being tabled until construction funding is available,” a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Transportation said via email. “Should there be significant changes in the coastal highway protection assessments or funding levels, HDOT can revisit the study and planning process.”

The Oahu MPO policy board voted in late May to reallocate $402,268 in county funds earmarked for the study to a transportation study of Ala Moana. The board has members from the Hawaii Legislature, Honolulu City Council and a number of local, state and federal agencies that decide how to coordinate large-scale planning projects across their departments.

“Presently, Ala Moana is the City’s busiest bus transit center and an important transfer point for passengers destined for Waikiki and the University of Hawaii,” Oahu MPO Executive Director Alvin Au said in an email. “Providing a logical and mode-inclusive mobility hub is beneficial to the Urban Core as well as those from Leeward, Central, and Windward Oahu.”

The move set grassroots activists on the Westside back decades, and some now hope to bypass the local and state government by lobbying for federal funds for the study, which would force Oahu MPO to prioritize the project. Activists are also focusing future campaigns on the environmental risks of the road, feeling that concerns over human safety and traffic have been ignored.

Farrington Highway is the only way in and out of the Leeward Coast for its nearly 50,000 residents. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Bunky Bakutis has been involved in the effort to reroute Farrington Highway for decades, and points to a 1998 master plan that called for redesign of the road. A newspaper article from the time noted the high level of community involvement in the planning process, and many residents mistakenly thought finalizing the plan was a promise from the city to invest in the changes.

“There was a lot of work done for nothing,” Bakutis said.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele recently requested $500,000 in federal funds for a new study on road realignment. It’s part of a host of transportation projects across Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District competing for funds.

“The federal budget can absorb this cost way better than our budget can,” said Rep. Cedric Gates, who represents Waianae, Makaha, Makua and Maili in the Hawaii House of Representatives. He worked with the city to formally request the funds and has requested that Gov. David Ige, the Hawaii Department of Transportation, the city Department of Transportation Services and residents write letters to the U.S. House transportation committee in support of the request. “We’re trying to work all the angles here.”

He expects an answer in the next month or two. If Congress does not fund the study, Gates hopes that HDOT could secure a different federal grant for the project. Otherwise, activists will once again have to call on state and local governments to allocate funds. After years of debate, the Honolulu City Council allocated $91,000 for such a study in 2013, but did not promise to fund construction of a new road once the study was complete.

The Farrington Highway study was due in 2016 but experienced significant delays, which Au of Oahu MPO attributed to staff turnover, contracting and right of entry to private land issues, and the pandemic.

Bunky Bakutis says community activists are disheartened by the decision to table a feasibility study. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Before its cancelation, the study was only 10% complete and cost $123,206. Over $20,000 went to Oahu MPO staff salaries while the remaining $98,734 was paid to a consultant. Au said via email that the study wasn’t federally mandated, and was therefore not prioritized.

“It’s unfortunate because this all fits into the stereotype of government not taking care of the people on the Westside,” Gates said.

In contrast, construction costs for the Ala Moana project have already been budgeted in the 2045 Oahu Regional Transportation Plan.

Gates said Farrington Highway should have been prioritized because it’s the only way to access the Leeward Coast.

“The Westside is just as busy as many of these hot zones for these tourists but doesn’t get the same resources,” he said.

A recent victory did come for activists after the Hawaii Department of Transportation changed its plans to spend $19.3 million in repairs on two bridges and reroute Farrington Highway makai during construction.

“That would have locked Farrington Highway in the same position for who knows how long,” Bakutis said. He was one of the organizers of a March protest against the HDOT bridge repairs and bypass road.

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

While Bakutis was relieved the state listened to community concerns about the bypass road’s environmental impact, he feels that the state hasn’t listened to residents’ concerns about safety.

“There have been times when the concrete pilings on the side of the road wash into the ocean and that’s been bad for the reefs,” he said. “Obviously I am against that but for me the biggest risk is that we’ve got kids running across this road and having the highway like this — it’s dangerous.”

Bakutis and Guzman-Simpliciano say many community activists were disheartened by the decision to table the study.

“People are feeling really discouraged,” Guzman-Simpliciano said. “We do everything right by protesting and writing letters and testimony and then nothing.”

She’s now trying to reignite interest at the local and state level by making erosion and sea level rise the main focus of her next campaign.

“It can’t be traffic or safety related because we won’t ever become a priority on that so we have to look at the environment,” she said.

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