On a windy afternoon last week, a group of Kihei Community Association members gathered at the corner of Liloa Drive and Waipuilani Road, an intersection where they hope the county will finally build a street planned for decades through the heart of South Maui.

Standing on the sidewalk, the group chatted about the project that could ease traffic and pave the way for students at a brand new high school to walk and bike safely to and from their homes. Every so often, they glanced down at their watches and clocks on their cellphones. They were supposed to meet at 2 p.m. with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who’d come to the island to talk with residents about community concerns, and County Council member Kelly King, who holds the seat for South Maui.

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But a half-hour later, the elected officials still hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that their cars finally rolled up.

“Aloha!” Kahele told the group. “Sorry it took us a little while. We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

Anyone who’s driven through Kihei lately has probably dealt with similar slowdowns. The community’s main thoroughfares, South Kihei Road and Piilani Highway, are both currently backed up with road projects that sometimes stop lines of cars in their tracks for minutes on end.

When there are car crashes, the situation is even worse: Kihei residents may find themselves blocked from leaving their neighborhoods by gridlocked traffic, or spend more than an hour making a trip to the grocery that would normally take 20 minutes.

A photo of Kihei traffic
With simultaneous projects on Piilani Highway and South Kihei Road, residents traveling to and from Kihei are now dealing with almost constant congestion. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Some residents are worried it’s a glimpse of what’s to come. Within the next year, a new public high school is planned to open its doors, ushering in a wave of school hour traffic in a part of town that already deals with daily jams.

But some community members say there are a couple of simple solutions to the problem — projects they argue should’ve been completed, or at least started, long ago.

During the meeting with the congressman and council member last week, representatives from the Kihei Community Association outlined two priorities they think could make getting around easier and safer for residents.

They want to see state officials build a pedestrian underpass so students at the new high school can cross the busy four-lane Piilani Highway. They’re also pushing for the county to finally complete a portion of a new road, known as the Kihei North-South Collector Road, that would run near the school. The passageway would be equipped with bike paths and greenways, allowing students to walk or bike safely home.

“That’s why the two projects dovetail,” said Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association. “If you have the underpass, and you have this greenway, then kids could walk down and then get home safely without ever needing a motor vehicle.”

A photo of Kihei Community Association members walking with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele through a stretch of land where part of Kihei's North-Shore Collector Road is planned to be built.
Kihei Community Association members walk with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele through a stretch of land where part of Kihei’s North-Shore Collector Road has been planned for years. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But residents have for years run into barriers in getting them built. Although Kihei community members see the two projects as connected, they fall under the jurisdiction of separate state and county agencies.

The Department of Education oversees the construction of the school. Asked to comment about the traffic plans, DOE deferred to the Hawaii Department of Transportation. DOT oversees Piilani Highway, where it’s building a four-lane roundabout in front of the new high school to slow traffic; it would also be in charge of building an underpass or overpass for students to be able to cross the highway. Meanwhile, the county of Maui controls the planning and construction of the Kihei collector road, which could eventually connect to the school’s underpass.

“None of us want to hear, ‘Oh, that’s not me; that’s the other guy,’” said Moran. “You’re all working for the public. Why aren’t you cooperating?”

But the agonizing traffic in Kihei comes at a time when residents and government officials are hopeful that resources are finally available to do something about it. As part of the federal infrastructure law passed last year, Hawaii is set to receive around $1.2 billion for highway projects and another $339 million to build and repair bridges, Kahele told Maui residents during the meeting last week — a “once in a lifetime pot of resources,” he said.

A photo of Kihei Community Association members speaking with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway.
Kihei Community Association members speak with Kahele about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Like other communities vying for portions of the money, the Kihei Community Association is trying to convince elected officials that its neighborhoods need funding for the sorely needed projects.

As early as 1998, the county recognized that a “near total reliance” on two main roads in South Maui — South Kihei Road and Piilani Highway — forced residents into cars to get to shopping centers, businesses, beaches, parks and schools, clogging roads and slowing traffic. In the Kihei-Makena Community Plan, which was put together in the late 1990s, the county said it wanted to create a more efficient system of roadways within the center of Kihei, equipped with greenways, bike lanes and trail systems so people could get around without cars.

In that plan, the county identified a project called the “North-South Collector Road” as a way to ease traffic through Kihei. The road was initially planned to stretch all the way from Uwapo Road in North Kihei to Keonekai Road at the edge of Wailea. It was supposed to be a “complete street” — a term that urban planners use for roads that also have walking and bike paths so they’re safe for pedestrians, cyclists and cars.

A photo of the intersection where the next phase of the Kihei collector road could begin in a few years.
A 1998 community plan identified the Kihei North-South Collector Road as a priority project to ease traffic. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But over the years, only a few sections got built, and the section that would eventually feed into the street that connected to Kihei’s first public high school kept getting postponed. First, it was supposed to be built in 2022, then it was moved to 2024, the Kihei Community Association said. In an email, the county said it’s now tentatively scheduled for fiscal year 2025, which starts in July of 2024.

“It’s the missing link,” said Kihei Community Association board member Rob Weltman.

Community members say the project can’t come soon enough, especially now that the new high school is set to open soon, bringing with it almost 170 students in the first year alone who’ll need to cross the road or have their parents or bus drivers ferry them there. It was supposed to open this fall, but “due to some unavoidable construction and material delays,” the state isn’t planning to welcome students to the new campus until January.

The construction of the new high school — and how students will get there — has been a point of debate for years on Maui. The Department of Education picked land on the mauka side of Piilani Highway, opposite most residents’ homes and forcing students to cross the highway to get there.

During the planning process, state land use officials told the DOE almost a decade ago that if it wanted to build the school there, it needed to build a “grade-separated crossing” — which could be a pedestrian bridge over the highway or underpass — so students could cross safely.

Construction of Kihei High School
Students are expected to start class in January after the new Kihei High School is constructed. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

But with the school expected to open in less than a year, the DOE is now finally studying the best way to build an overpass or underpass, according to the Department of Transportation. Because it won’t be ready in time for the opening, the DOT said it’s planning to ask state land use officials to let it start school without a separate crossing for students. It’s currently building a $16-million roundabout in front of the school, which it argues will be safe enough for the first group of students to cross while the agencies figure out what to do next.

“If not, the school opening may be delayed three to five years,” DOT said in a statement.

But many Kihei residents are frustrated that almost a decade went by without a clear plan, and they worry that a crosswalk won’t be enough to keep children safe. During the meeting last week, the community association members led the congressman on a trek to an undeveloped swath of land that runs under the highway, next to the school, where they say an underpass could be easily built.

A photo of Kihei Community Association member Rob Weltman showing U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele the busy section of Piilani Highway near the new Kihei high school.
Kihei Community Association member Rob Weltman shows Kahele the busy section of Piilani Highway near the new Kihei high school. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

As cars roared over the highway overhead, the community association members showed Kahele how students could walk from campus, under the highway and through the gulch, which could one day connect to the future collector road’s walking and biking trails.

“The community supports this?” Kahele asked the group.

“Absolutely,” one of the Kihei residents said.

“I sure wouldn’t want my kids crossing the highway,” said Kahele, who has a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old.

King, who’s advocated for the project for years, weighed in, too: “If even one kid gets injured, it’s too much.”

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

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