In response to growing calls from residents who want their government leaders to better manage crowds of tourists who’ve clogged parking lots and dissuaded locals from going to some beaches in their own backyards, Maui County is planning to roll out a new paid parking system that would charge visitors and set aside free spaces for residents at some of the island’s busiest destinations.

Maui County locator mapThe county administration wants to spend an estimated $3.8 million to stand up the paid parking program during its next budget year, which starts in July, according to budget documents. The program, called Park Maui, aims to “proactively control” parking problems on county-owned property, including on streets, at beach parks and in business districts like Paia, where parking is a daily struggle for anyone who needs to get to work or do business in the area.

Although the details are still being hammered out, the county estimates that it will need the funding to hire private companies to manage thousands of parking stalls across the island. That’s expected to cover the costs to set up all the paid parking equipment, hire people to write tickets to those who don’t follow the rules and handle permits and fee waivers for kamaaina.

“This whole plan was derived so our residents can go down to the beach and enjoy themselves and not have to worry about parking,” Mayor Michael Victorino said Thursday. “Visitor, you want to come? You’re welcome, but you’re going to pay for that parking.”

A photo of cars parked on the street in Paia.
The county is planning to use the new Park Maui program to ease parking woes in high-traffic areas like Paia. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Victorino said the county is working with parking experts to figure out where on Maui to roll out the program first — and how much to charge visitors to park there. County employees are also still deciding how many free spots to set aside for locals and developing the process to reserve them.

Chances are, that could differ by location, Victorino said. At some places, residents might be able to reserve spots online in advance, while at other areas with limited cellphone reception, the county may need to hire parking attendants to oversee lots.

The county is expected to finalize the details in the months to come, after it hires the companies to run the parking. For now, some of the parking lots at the top of the list include Keawakapu, Polo Beach and some parking lots in Paia.

The county is also looking to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next year expanding or upgrading multiple public parking lots across the island, including those at Keawakapu, Poolenalena and in the Paia area.

“We need more beach parking. We need more beach access,” Victorino said. “That’s something we all realized a long time ago, but we’re making it come to fruition.”

A photo of Polo Beach on Maui
The county of Maui is rolling out a program that could charge visitors to park in county-owned lots at the island’s most popular destinations, like Polo Beach. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In Hawaii, residents have the right to access beaches and shorelines, but much of that access today is tied to their luck finding a spot to park. Over the last decade, many Maui residents have increasingly run into that problem: When they finally have a day off work and head to their favorite beach, they arrive to find lots full, often packed with rental cars.

At any given day on Maui, there might be up to 60,000 tourists — which is more than the island should have, per an existing county plan that says the number of visitors shouldn’t exceed more than one-third of Maui County’s population, which is about 165,000 residents. When the pandemic struck, the crowds went away, and residents saw for the first time in years what it was like to park without having to compete for the scarce spots. But since then, the number of tourists has crept back up toward pre-pandemic levels, and residents are once again struggling to find stalls in places like Paia, South Maui and West Maui.

“The pandemic really gave us an opportunity to see how it was without as many tourists,” said Kai Nishiki, a longtime advocate for shoreline access on Maui. “That really has lit a fire under government leadership to put more of a focus on the quality of life for residents.”

Earlier this year, a group of Maui County leaders tasked with finding new ways to control over-tourism said that one of the ways Maui could do that is to create a reservation system for visitors at popular spots. The state in recent years began charging visitors to park at Makena and Waianapanapa state parks. Some residents have advocated that the county charge parking fees to tourists too as a way to raise revenue and protect Maui’s beaches and natural areas from overcrowding.

“In Hawaii, historically, we’ve just been like, ‘Everything’s free and it’s just all about aloha,’” Nishiki said. “But that has been taken advantage of, and now … our resources are being overused.”

A photo of Cove Park in Kihei, which is almost always packed with tourists taking surfing lessons.
Cove Park in Kihei is almost always packed with tourists taking surfing lessons. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Among the places that Nishiki suggested the county start charging visitors for parking and reserving spots for locals: the county-owned lot off Hana Highway in Paia, Hookipa, Keawakapu and Polo Beach. She said she also suggested that the county look into charging for parking at Airport Beach in West Maui but was told that could be complicated because the county isn’t the only landowner in the area where people park.

When it comes to addressing overcrowding at Maui’s beaches, that’s one big limitation, Nishiki said. The county can only regulate and charge parking fees to visitors on property that it owns.

Lauren Blickley of the Surfrider Foundation, which works to protect beaches and oceans, pointed to one example on Maui’s North Shore: Wawau Point, also known as Baby Beach. For generations, Maui families had parked on a red-dirt lot at the western tip of Baldwin Beach, until a dispute between landowners almost three years ago ended with the lot being closed to the public. Some residents are pushing for the county to purchase the lot so it can be used for beach access again.

But at parking lots under county control, Blickley said charging visitors could help prevent Maui’s shorelines from being overwhelmed by too many people. At the same time, reserving spots for residents could also offer the chance to reverse some of the damage to shoreline access that’s been done over the years: As beaches and parking lots in vacation hubs like South and West Maui have crowded with tourists, residents have started to avoid those places, and the lack of access becomes normalized, Blickley said.

“As a mom of two small kids, I literally don’t go to certain beaches because I can never find parking,” Blickley said. “We’re getting used to essentially being pushed out.”

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

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