SOUTH KOHALA — Even on a good day, getting in to or out of Waikoloa Village on Hawaii island can be a challenge. 

Nearly all of the community, home to more than 7,100 people, is only accessible via Paniolo Road, which itself connects to Waikoloa Road at just one end. The village is, as resident Ruth A. Smith put it, “just one huge, giant cul-de-sac.”

It’s not just community members battling through the local traffic. Waikoloa Road is the closest route from the mountains toward the sea for commuters coming over Saddle Road and Daniel K. Inouye Highway from the island’s windward side to the resorts along the Kohala coast.

Amid continued growth in local population and regional traffic, as well as the persistent threat of fires, residents have for years sought to get another road from their community to Queen Kaahumanu Highway below.

Now in the wake of an enormous fire that led to the evacuation of thousands and concern that climate change will trigger more fires on Pacific islands, and as Congress moves toward passing a historic infrastructure bill, some here are eager to see lawmakers seize the opportunity to get the road done.

“We haven’t seen a pot of money like this before,” said Smith, a 27-year-resident of Waikoloa Village and chair of the South Kohala Community Development Plan action committee. “We need to jump in aggressively on this.”

Smith was also part of the committee that steered the creation of the community development plan published in 2008, which identified the construction of a second access road as the top priority for Waikoloa Village.

The plan explicitly cited the persistent threat of wildfires, saying a second way in and out “may well prove to be the difference between successful evacuation of the village and injuries and even loss of life.” A conceptual map accompanying the plan proposed building a new mauka-makai road at the north end of an extended Paniolo Avenue and connecting to Queen Kaahumanu Highway in the area of Puako Bay.

Thousands Evacuated In Latest Fire

At the beginning of August, a fire that would go on to be the largest one ever recorded on Hawaii island jumped Mamalahoa Highway above the village, and officials ordered thousands to evacuate the area. The evacuation resulted in hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic along Waikoloa Road, with local media reporting it took some drivers 45 minutes to get to the highway less than six miles from the village.

Officials opened an emergency evacuation route at the end of Hulu Street, a residential road extending towards the ocean from Paniolo Avenue, although local media reported the lion’s share of vehicles left the town via the main road.

Many single-family homes in Waikoloa Village are adjacent to dry pasture land. Photo: Tim Wright
Many single-family homes in Waikoloa Village are adjacent to dry pasture land susceptible to fire. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

County Councilman Tim Richards said the emergency evacuation route worked this time, but said it wasn’t without problems — specifically integrating evacuating traffic from that road onto the highway. Adding another way in and out, Richards said, “is definitely needed.”

Smith, too, said the emergency route doesn’t negate the need for another connection to the highway below. In a 2019 report, Smith wrote that the local population had grown an estimated 60% since the emergency route’s completion in 2006.

And while the emergency route might work in a partial evacuation, she said, it’s less likely to suffice in a quick, large-scale evacuation and is probably inadequate to support evacuations from the coast to the village, such as for a tsunami.

Now, in the wake of the recent evacuation, Smith said the fire has bolstered the case for another road.

“Nothing could have made the case more profoundly,” she said. 

With a price tag of $40 million to $50 million, though, Richards said the cost is beyond what the county can afford for a single road. But the county’s administration “has made this a priority” and infrastructure legislation making its way through Congress could make the effort more feasible, he said. 

The $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which includes $110 billion for the country’s roads, bridges and highways, has already passed through the U.S. Senate, and now awaits House approval.

“With the need reinforced by the recent evacuation, combined with the potential of infrastructure funding coming out of Washington D.C., I’m hopeful I’ll be able to start the process,” Richards said.

The Hawaii County mayor’s office didn’t respond to questions about another road for Waikoloa Village.

Other efforts to ease traffic are also stalled for want of funding.

In 2017, the Federal Highway Administration and Hawaii Department of Transportation released a draft environmental impact statement for the Saddle Road Extension, which would extend from Daniel K. Inouye Highway’s endpoint at Mamalahoa Highway and connect to Queen Kaahumanu Highway across from Waikoloa Beach Drive, which meets the lower highway about a mile south of Waikoloa Road.

Wild goats forage for vegetation at a pasture scorched by the July 31th brush fire next to Waikoloa Villiage. Photo: Tim Wright
Wild goats forage for vegetation in a pasture scorched by the July 31 brush fire next to Waikoloa Village. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

While aimed more at improving the commute between east and west Hawaii, the documents said the project could take some truck traffic off Waikoloa Road and would provide another option for emergency evacuations.

There are three proposed alignments for the project. The route Richards called “the most popular and likely one” would include a connection to Waikoloa Road a couple miles south of the village.

The draft environmental impact statement pegged the project’s cost at anywhere from $63 million to $74 million, depending on the final route and design, and it anticipated a construction timeline of close to three years. But final approval for the environmental review has yet to come out, and the latest update by the highway administration said the project is on “temporary ‘hold’ status until funding for construction is confirmed.”

The state previously planned to cover costs with revenue from the surcharge applied to rental cars, but the pandemic’s economic impact meant the state collected far less than it anticipated. In the 2020 fiscal year, the surcharge brought in just $72.5 million, nearly $25 million short of pre-pandemic projections, according to the Department of Transportation. During the 2021 fiscal year the surcharge raised just over $32.2 million.

In an email, DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said the state will continue putting the project forward for federal grant opportunities, but the agency is currently prioritizing the maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

“All expenditures relating to this project have been suspended for the time being,” Kunishige said of the Saddle Road Extension project, including planning documents such as the final environmental impact statement and land acquisition. 

Although that project could improve traffic along Waikoloa Road and connecting the two roads would give drivers another option to get down from the village, Smith said, “you’re still talking about a funnel, and funnels are always dangerous.” 

Similarly, Richards said, while the extension would provide more capacity for getting people out, it doesn’t change the fundamental cul-de-sac shape.

“Long story short; we still need a second highway in and out of the village,” he said.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

About the Author

  • Cameron Miculka

    Cameron Miculka is a freelance journalist. He is a former staff journalist for West Hawaii Today in Kailua-Kona, and he has previously worked as a journalist at the Pacific Daily News in Hagatna, Guam, and the Weimar Mercury in Colorado County, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Public and Urban Policy at the University of Glasgow.