Junked Vehicles: How One Hawaii Lawmaker Turned A Good Idea Into Reality - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

As a resident of Hawaiian Paradise Park on the Big Island, Greggor Ilagan would frequently see cars, vans and trucks dumped at the same curb along Makuu Drive as he drove in and out of Puna.

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It’s a problem across the state but one that is particularly pronounced in Puna, a vast rural region that is the size of Oahu and a bit of a Wild West frontier. It’s estimated that some 8,000 vehicles are abandoned in Hawaii every year, about 1,620 of them reported on the Big Island alone in 2019.

Later, while volunteering for a community cleanup in the area, Ilagan was surprised to come across a lot with well over 200 abandoned vehicles. He began talking to area residents and homeowner associations about the issue, and what could be done about it.

That was two years ago, when Ilagan, 35, was campaigning for the District 4 seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives. He won and began his first year, which was consumed with the freshman trying to learn the ropes of the Legislature.

By his second year Ilagan felt he knew enough to ask Henry Aquino, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, if he “could put my weight” behind an issue, as he recalled. Aquino gave Ilagan, his committee vice chair, the green light.

“And that gave me all the clout I needed to bring people together,” he said.

State Rep. Greggor Ilagan
State Rep. Greggor Ilagan. BRAD-*-GODA PHOTOGRAPHY

By the end of this year’s session on May 5, Ilagan had managed to accomplish what is rare for a first-time legislator: He got four bills passed, all of them aimed at deterring the unceremonious discarding of vehicles that are then scavenged for parts and left to rust.

But it took a lot of work and study, talking to constituents and reaching out to government officials to learn more about the varying state, county and federal laws concerning abandonment.

There would have to be compromises in the final language of the legislation to address concern raised by officials, too. And Ilagan’s bills still await consideration by Gov. David Ige, who has until June 27 to announce his veto intent.

But Ilagan is already turning his attention to another issue important in Puna — agricultural theft — and he thinks the lessons he learned pushing the vehicle bills will be instructive. He also wants to work more on the abandonment issue to cover things not addressed by his four bills, namely greater financial assistance for county programs.

“This package is a definite first step forward, but there are still problems that haven’t been addressed,” he explained. “I believe that we need some sort of standard or goal statewide with our abandoned vehicle programs.”

The Problem

Junking cars is not a new problem to the islands. As far back as 1999 the Los Angeles Times headlined a story, “Kauai’s Junked Cars Slowly Turn ‘Garden Isle’ into ‘Garbage Isle.’”

The ditching of motor vehicles has become so ubiquitous that a Big Island reporter for Civil Beat remarked in a 2019 article that it was much easier to spot one than Hawaii’s state bird, the nene.

The dumping is just the first step, as the vehicles are over time transformed by having the windows smashed, the wheels and catalytic converter removed for scrap value, and even being set on fire. Toxic substances like fuel, oil and coolant also leak.

“When it rains, these substances are then flushed into our waterways,” according to Hawaii County’s Department of Environmental Management website. “Mercury is particularly dangerous, even in very small quantities, because when it’s released to the atmosphere and returns to earth as rainfall it endangers aquatic life and public health.”

Abandoned vehicles Big Island
If left long enough, say people working on the problem of abandoned vehicles, most end up burned like this one left along a road on the outskirts of Pahoa in Puna. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat/2019

Even the tires can be a problem — “breeding grounds for mosquitoes which transmit various diseases.”

As Ilagan researched the problem, he learned that each county has a different process and capacity for dealing with the derelict rust-buckets.

On Maui, for example, the Junk Vehicle Disposal Assistance Program allows residents to dispose of two vehicles per year at no charge. Kauai does not pay for towing charges, but Oahu does along with disposal — a model that Ilagan would like to see adopted statewide.

The departments also vary in terms of how they are housed and staffed. Hawaii County, for instance, handles things through a solid waste division and recycling section.

Why that is important, Ilagan came to find, is that any solution proposed by the state would have to comport with existing county rules.

“It’s not like every island does this through the DMV,” he said.

The problem of abandonment also differs from island to island.

On crowded Oahu there is a lack of space to store the towed cars, even though the city requires tow contractors to move abandoned cars off public roads in three days or face a fine. Home to several military installations, Oahu is further hampered by a federal law that prohibits the city from auctioning off an enlisted service member’s car without the owner’s permission.

The Solution

Of the package of bills, Ilagan said House Bill 1413 is the one with “the most teeth” and thus will have the greatest impact in deterring future abandoned vehicles.

It would allow county finance directors to require that registered owners of abandoned vehicles pay any outstanding expenses incurred for disposing of the vehicles.

If the charges are not paid, the owners might not be allowed to receive a certificate of registration or complete a transfer of ownership. They could also see their driver’s license suspended, revoked or prohibited from renewal.

“We realized that what was problematic in offices dealing with abandoned vehicles is that the repeat offenders are the culprits who have the most abandoned vehicles in the community,” Ilagan explained, referring to junkyard owners or so-called chop shops where vehicles are dismantled for parts. “About 20% of owners create 80% of the problems. If they start leaving vehicles around the community, people can report that, and with this law we can hold these people accountable.”

House Bill 1414 is a complement to HB 1413 in that it makes the registered owner of an abandoned vehicle subject to a tiered fine system. A fourth and any future violations will call for a $1,000 penalty.

The other two bills in Ilagan’s package call for the following:

  • House Bill 1411 would require that both buyers and sellers provide signatures and addresses on vehicle transfers. Currently, only the seller’s signature on the title is required, resulting at times in fraudulent ownership claims. A fine would also be imposed for providing false information.
  • House Bill 1412 requires counties to provide a minimum distance that an abandoned vehicle must be moved within a specific time frame to avoid being towed.

To get his bills passed, buy-in from colleagues was critical. All four measures passed nearly unanimously.

Ilagan was also helped by the the four county mayors.

In shared testimony on HB 1413, Maui’s Mike Victorino, Oahu’s Rick Blangiardi, Kauai’s Derek Kawakami and Hawaii’s Mitch Roth wrote, “Operational funds expended per year per county varies but can average approximately $1,000,000, due to additional cost for vehicle clean-outs, special cleanups, and related costs. This measure will significantly assist the counties with recouping expenses of removing abandoned and derelict vehicles from public roadways and properties.”

How did Ilagan reach the mayors? Connections.

Ilagan, who at 26 was the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii County Council, knew Roth from his former work as county prosecutor and their shared interest in ag theft.

Ilagan also knew Victorino when the then-Maui County Councilman was part of the Hawaii State Association of Counties. Ilagan also came to know Mason Chock, vice chairman of the Kauai County Council and a leader with HSAC. The group backed all four bills.

A video produced for Honolulu’s Department of Customer Service:

Ilagan also consulted with his own constituents. At town halls around Puna he surveyed what their top priorities were. The abandoned vehicles issue was in the top five along with alternate routes in and out of Puna, restoration of a boat ramp at Pohoiki, greater homeowners’ oversight and widening of Highway 130, a vital roadway.

Ilagan acknowledges that his bills won’t end the problem of abandoned vehicles as if a magic wand could be waved and “every time someone drove by a big, ugly, broken, and stripped abandoned vehicle, that person could use that wand to make it disappear.”

Those words, in fact, come from a press release put out by Ilagan’s office in January when the bills were first introduced.

But what started as a vision became a reality. And that’s no magic trick.

Read this next:

Sally Kaye: Why Is Maui County Messing Around With Manini Word Changes To the County Code?

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Great news about Representative Iligan's success in cleaning up our environment and enhancing the beauty of Hawaii. I'm thinking we can expect greater things in the future from this savvy gentelman.

DEGardner · 4 months ago

This sounds like it was overdue and is a great step! Thanks Ilagan! Great job on actually listening and caring enough to make a real difference!

jason · 4 months ago

There are simply too many cars in Hawaii. If all our cars were driven on the public roads at the same time, there would not be enough space to accommodate them. What we need is what we could call "the Singapore Solution," i.e., for every new car that comes into our state, an old one has either to leave or be scrapped. We know that the automobile dealers would squawk about losing profits, but our environment is a whole lot more important that dealers' making lots of money, right?

steveo · 4 months ago

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