With $22 million in new federal funding, Hawaii officials are moving forward with long-awaited plans to protect a critical stretch of state highway in West Maui.

The scenic Honoapiilani Highway ranks as one of the most threatened highways in Hawaii because of rising sea levels, king tides, storm surges, ocean swells and other coastal hazards fueled by climate change.

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The Hawaii Department of Transportation is hosting a pair of town hall meetings this week for the public to voice opinions and ask questions about how the two-lane highway should be protected. The next one is Thursday at noon via Zoom.

Officials are focusing on a roughly 6-mile portion of the coast-hugging highway starting at Papalua Beach Park, continuing through Ukumehame and Olowalu, and ending at Launiupoko, at the eastern edge of Lahaina Bypass Road. The total cost for design and construction is estimated at $90 million.

The Honoapiilani Highway is the main artery in and out of West Maui. Keeping it open and functional is considered crucial for public safety, commerce, tourism and other transportation needs.

Over the last decade, the stretch of highway in question has undergone repairs three times due to storm and wave damage. Various state and county planning documents have called for realigning parts of Honoapiilani Highway because of climate-related hazards.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation has invited the community to a town hall meeting Thursday regarding the proposal to construct improvements to Honoapiilani Highway between Launiupoko and Ukumehame that would address the roadway’s vulnerability to coastal hazards and sea level rise. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The Honoapiilani project is considered a long-term solution, not a quick fix. Because the planning process is in its early stages, few specific details about the project were available at Tuesday night’s town hall other than that the goal is to protect the highway, likely by moving that 6-mile stretch mauka.

The process will include preparation of a draft environmental impact statement, consultation with stakeholders and experts, public hearings and comment periods, and a final EIS that would go to the governor for consideration in the fall of 2023.

If the Honoapiilani project receives full funding, construction is expected to begin in late 2024, according to the transportation department. The federal contribution is expected to come from the $2.8 billion Hawaii is set to receive from the infrastructure bill to strengthen roads and bridges and make them less vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation has invited the community to a town hall meeting regarding the proposal to construct improvements to Honoapiilani Highway between Launiupoko and Ukumehame that would address the roadway’s vulnerability to coastal hazards and sea level rise.
The state DOT has received a $22 million federal grant to realign a portion of the Honoapiilani Highway that would address the roadway’s vulnerability to sea level rise. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

A variety of land ownership exists mauka of the highway. One member of the public asked if the state would need to exercise eminent domain to acquire private land to move the highway inland.

The first approach would be to have a “friendly negotiation” with any landowners who might be affected by the project, said Robin Shishido, Maui district engineer. Eminent domain, or taking private land for a public purpose and providing compensation, would be a last resort.

Members of the public asked questions about whether bike lanes, increased shoreline access and green space features could be part of the project. Planners indicated everything is under consideration at this point.

At least two people suggested that designers consider adding a median or other safety features to reduce head-on collisions. That will also be taken into consideration, planners said.

This chart from the 2017 Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report shows the summary of potential impacts on Maui if the sea level rose 1.1 feet or 3.2 feet. 

Climate scientist Chip Fletcher said it’s exciting to see the Honoapiilani project moving forward given the road’s critical importance and the numerous threats it’s facing.

“It represents the only recent example of significantly moving a highway away from the coastal zone so we’ll learn a lot from this and hopefully that will translate to other similar projects around Hawaii,” said Fletcher, interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Based on scientific projections, there will be no shortage of other Hawaii roadways to apply any lessons learned from the Honoapiilani project. A recent federal report found that sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is projected to increase, on average, by about 1 foot in the next 30 years. In Hawaii, sea level rise over that time period is estimated at 6 to 8 inches.

Some 70% of beaches in Hawaii are currently threatened by coastal erosion and sea level rise, according to the state’s climate change portal. In Maui, 85% of shorelines are eroding.

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

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