Last year, East Maui residents saw a brief respite during the pandemic from all the visitor traffic that typically clogs the popular Hana Highway, taking a toll on their daily lives.

What if state officials charged an actual toll on the visitors instead to solve that traffic problem for good?

Those visitors are definitely back in droves, part of the recent “tourism tsunami” that’s gripped Hawaii. More people on the mainland and across the globe are getting vaccinated, and after a year stuck in place they’re eager to resume traveling again.

Last year at this time, the arrivals to the Valley Isle were almost nil. Now, they’re back up around 8,000 per day, state data shows. Traffic on Hana Highway – or the Road to Hana, as it’s often called – has subsequently crawled to a standstill.

Residents there are feeling pushed over the edge.

“We’re enduring even more (traffic) than we were before the pandemic. The floodgates are open,” said Napua Hueu, a volunteer organizer with the grassroots group Hana Highway Regulation.

Hueu, who’s 33 and a lifelong East Maui resident, said that 10 years ago some of the sites along the fabled, approximately 65-mile-long road and its more than 600 curves never saw visitors. But with the explosion of Instagram and other social media platforms those sites grew very popular, very quickly.

Currently, East Maui is dealing with the shock of resurgent tourism plus two separate construction projects along the rural highway whose temporary traffic lights bunch up the cars and create even more traffic, Hueu said.

Hana Highway parking
Cars overflow out of the parking lot at Kaumahina State Park, which recently reopened after being closed during the pandemic. The park has 23 legal stalls but often sees more than 40 cars parked there during the summer, locals say. Courtesy: Hana Highway Regulation

One of those projects aims to repair the road after heavy rains flooded the area near Haiku in March, causing a dam at Kaupakalua to overflow.

East Maui communities are used to hosting and accommodating lots of tourists, but “the tensions have never been higher,” Hueu said Friday. “The frustration has never been more intense.”

Typically, it takes about two hours to get from Hana to Wailuku in Central Maui, she said. These days, it’s common for the trip to take four hours, she added.

Sumner La Croix, a research fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, suggested imposing a toll on rental cars on Hana Highway during a Civil Beat panel on traffic last month.

It would be one simple solution to help reduce neighbor-island traffic and make life better for locals as Hawaii emerges from the pandemic, La Croix said.

The highway’s limited entry points make it an ideal place to set up a toll, where a transponder could record when a rental car accesses the highway.

The costs to the customer could be included in the rental contract, La Croix said. Such a toll would encourage some visitors to carpool or use a van service instead, he added, reducing the number of rental cars that access the narrow road.

“The technology exists for that … It wouldn’t be that hard to do,” La Croix said. “We ought to be thinking about that.”

‘No Parking’ Signs Not Enough

State transportation officials weren’t available to discuss the toll concept late last week or Monday, so it’s not clear how much they’ve considered it, if at all.

Hawaii Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said the agency does not have the authority to implement tolls.

(I’m scheduled to catch up on the subject later this week with HDOT’s deputy director for highways, Ed Sniffen.)

State data shows Hana Highway saw nearly 1,900 daily trips on average in 2019 before the pandemic hit.

However, Hueu said the idea of creating a Hana Highway toll or a reservation system for visitors to access the road has been kicked around her entire life.

Hana Highway Road to Hana

Either idea would help, she said. But she added that neither addresses the main source of the traffic problems along Hana Highway: visitors parking illegally and venturing into sites near the road where they’re not allowed, causing chokepoints and bottlenecks.

The worst spot for this activity is Kailua, commonly known as Bamboo Forest. A Hana Highway Regulation survey done throughout June 2018 found 2,700 cars parked illegally there and 960 illegally parked cars at the highway’s second-worst spot, Kaihalulu, or Red Sand Beach.

Hueu, who used to manage a local tour company herself until the pandemic hit, said she would support a visitor toll as long as the revenues went to manage those core problems.

Hana Highway Regulation has proposed creating a “visitor information personnel unit” that would involve local residents in special uniforms working at various sites along the road to let people know where they can legally park and visit.

The grassroots group submitted a proposal to the Maui County Economic Development Program for a $500,000 six-month pilot program, Hueu said.

Hana Highway Regulation’s own studies during summer 2018 showed that having such personnel on site — not just no-parking signs — would be extremely effective in keeping people from parking on the road and jamming traffic, and from venturing where they shouldn’t go, according to its application.

The group’s first grant application to create the program in 2019 was rejected, Hueu said, and it recently reapplied for the 2022 fiscal year.

The county could cover those costs if given a greater share of the transient accommodations tax, she said. However, revenues from a rental car toll could help fund it too, Hueu added.

Hueu also has launched a petition on Change.org asking the county to temporarily limit travel on the highway to residents and visitors who have a reservation to stay in the area. The petition seeks 500 signatures and had 317 as of Monday evening.

“The various communities of East Maui are overwhelmed by the pressures that are building and we ask your support in signing this petition to encourage the County of Maui and State of Hawaii to alleviate this turmoil by enacting responsible visitor industry management mechanisms,” the petition says.

As the roads, highways and bridges in the nation’s lone island state struggle to accommodate more and more cars, local transportation officials need to get more creative in how to manage the capacity.

Setting tolls in areas overwhelmed by visitors is one possible solution. As La Croix pointed out, the Road to Hana, with its limited access points, is an ideal and simple spot to get that idea rolling.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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