Much-needed improvements to coastal highways, bridges, airports and broadband topped the list of priorities as Hawaii officials prepared to spend an anticipated $2.8 billion in federal funds after Congress passed a historic infrastructure bill.

The amount is Hawaii’s share of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was approved Saturday and is awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature. Biden hasn’t given a date for when he’d sign the bill but said it would be “soon.”

U.S. Sen Brian Schatz called the measure an enormous achievement. He said bipartisan infrastructure deals like the one that just cleared Congress have been a “white whale” in Washington, D.C., something that the previous two presidents promised but couldn’t achieve.

“It’s going to benefit Hawaii’s economy for many, many years to come,” the Hawaii Democrat said Monday in an interview.

Laniakea Beach Kamehameha Highway Cars
Major road improvements, including those needed for this section of Kamehameha Highway near Laniakea Beach, could be funded with the aid of $2.8 billion from an infrastructure bill that recently won congressional approval. Kuʻu Kauanoe/ Civil Beat/2020

The lion’s share of Hawaii’s anticipated infrastructure dollars – about $1.5 billion – is earmarked for roads and bridge projects throughout the state. State highway officials already have a list of projects.

Ed Sniffen, state Department of Transportation deputy director for highways, said that the new federal funds would bring the DOT an additional $40 million a year to spend on highway projects for the next five years.

That could expedite the relocation of certain oceanside roads at risk of being swallowed by rising seas.

Sniffen anticipated using the federal dollars to relocate sections of Honoapiilani Highway on Maui away from the shore, while also setting Kamehameha Highway on Oahu near Laniakea Beach another 50 feet mauka. Sniffen said he’d like to push the road even farther from the shore but needs to wait for environmental studies and archaeological impact assessments.

Another section of Kamehameha Highway near Kaaawa also has been pummeled by waves, but Sniffen said the DOT would direct more money toward planning and gaining a better understanding of the future land use for that area before making a decision on what to do with the highway.

The same goes for plans to push part of Farrington Highway in Makaha away from the beach, something area residents have called for in recent years.

Sniffen said the DOT is still working with those communities and plans to install more sand to mitigate erosion of the highways.

The DOT also will work with the private sector to fund highway improvements near areas planned for affordable housing, he said.

Hawaii also is getting $339 million to repair bridges. The state DOT will prioritize a list of the top 50 bridges that need repairs, with a bridge on the Big Island spanning the Hakalau Stream at the top.

Airports are expected to get at least $246 million from the funding package, but officials are waiting for guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration to determine how to spend it. Sniffen said the DOT would have more details on that later this month.

Damaged section of road on Kamehameha Highway in Kaaawa. Climate change.
Parts of Kamehameha Highway on Windward Oahu may not be relocated just yet. Transportation officials are waiting the completion of land use studies before deciding on funding relocation efforts in the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Since the start of the pandemic, congressional funding for transportation projects has totaled about $783 million, according to Jill Tokuda, who has been tracking federal spending in the state for the Hawaii Data Collaborative.

The passage of the infrastructure deal represents a marked uptick in federal investment in Hawaii.

“If you look at it that way, this is significantly more than what has come out in regards to infrastructure,” she said.

Schatz is most excited about broadband improvements for Hawaii, saying large institutions like the University of Hawaii will need better connectivity in the years ahead. He hopes that money could help fund undersea cables and landing sites.

The state is set to receive at least $160 million for broadband infrastructure, $60 million to be set aside for Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries and the other $100 million to expand broadband access statewide.

“This is going to be a real shot in the arm in terms of increasing broadband access in rural communities,” Tokuda said.

According to a press release from Schatz’s office, $637 million would be set aside for public transit, specifically, “cleaner and safer buses.”

Schatz said he doesn’t expect that money to be used to help cover the Honolulu rail project’s $3.6 billion budget shortfall since funds are for currently existing transit projects.

“There’s not a big chunk there for the Honolulu rail project,” Schatz said.

County water and sewer systems are also expected to get a boost with $200 million, while another $18 million would go to electric vehicle infrastructure, like charging stations, in Hawaii.

Senator Brian Schatz.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz called the infrastructure deal an enormous achievement for Congress and expects Hawaii to get even more funds in coming months. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

There could be more funds on the way, too.

Hawaii could be competing for billions of dollars in federal grant funds in addition to the $2.8 billion already earmarked for the state. Sniffen hopes some of those grant funds could help pay for highway relocation programs.

There’s still billions of dollars available nationwide to fund coastal resiliency, flood mitigation, street safety and industrial site cleanup projects.

“It’s quite a bit of competitive dollars where Hawaii already has a competitive advantage,” Tokuda said. “But we need to seek out those funds.”

Planners also must wait for spending decisions to be approved by state lawmakers, who will reconvene the 2022 legislative session in January.

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said that lawmakers and Gov. David Ige’s administration are in preliminary discussions on how to allocate the money.

“You want to make sure, when you get the federal dollars, they can be spent expeditiously,” he said.

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