The DOT is installing medians and widening sections of Kalanianaole Highway amid safety concerns, with six pedestrians killed in 10 years.

Kalanianaole Highway used to be an easy road to cross on the way to the ocean, according to longtime Waimanalo resident Kukana Kama-Toth. 

The section of the highway that runs through the rural Windward community spans just two lanes — one going east toward Kailua and the other west toward Hawaii Kai.

Waimanalo is in one of the most scenic parts of Oahu, with the beach on one side and the Koolau mountain range on the other. But the community maintains a small-town feel, complete with a grocery store, a pharmacy, a laundromat, a gas station and a feed supply shop.

Now, the road is getting a makeover – and not everyone is happy.

Some residents worry the addition of medians and turn lanes are more about accommodating cars passing through and threaten Waimanalo’s rural character. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“Waimanalo is a village-style community, and it was created in that intent,” said Kama-Toth, lamenting the influx of passersby and the ways that Kalanianaole Highway is being retrofitted to accommodate them.

Local Road Or Thruway?

As Oahu’s population balloons and the number of tourists grows, the island’s low-capacity coastal roads that are often the only thoroughfares for rural communities have become increasingly crowded, prompting calls for the state to better manage traffic.

The state’s Kalanianaole Highway improvements project is an example of the difficulties in balancing the needs of local communities with the limitations of space on Hawaii’s most populous island. It’s also an illustration of how increased outreach by state officials can help overcome those challenges.

Department of Transportation Director Ed Sniffen recognizes that some residents remain worried the changes may threaten the character of the neighborhood.

“We heard from the community that ‘we don’t want our Waimanalo roads to look like Kailua,'” he said Thursday in a telephone interview. “And that was never the intent. The intent was just to make sure we build efficiency and safety into everything we did.”

The road — named for Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole who as a territorial delegate to Congress in the early 20th century introduced legislation that led to its development — has had problems.

“Are we serving the community that has grown very little, or are we serving those who are traversing our community, which causes more of that traffic?”

Kimeona Kane, Neighborhood Board Chair

During the past 10 years, six pedestrians were killed along the stretch cutting through Waimanalo.

And by sheer numbers, it’s clear that Kalanianaole Highway isn’t just for locals anymore. 

More than 9,000 vehicles traverse this section of road each day, a rate comparable to the stretch of Kamehameha Highway that makes its way through Haleiwa or the stretch of Kalakaua Avenue that serves Waikiki. 

“The needs have changed,” said Ted Ralston, who grew up in Waimanalo in the 1950s and now leads the neighborhood board’s transportation committee.

“As a kid growing up here, we never went out of Waimanalo,” he said. Now, with more people using the road, there are simply more interests to balance.

The construction began in 2016. The state Department of Transportation announced it was closing one lane to widen and repair the road, install a new left turn lane and make safety and drainage improvements spanning from Olomana Golf Course to Poalima Street, near Jack in the Box.

That was phase one. Starting in January 2022 the DOT began similar improvements in the next section of road, spanning from Poalima Street to Makai pier.

It’s currently scheduled to finish in late spring 2023, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Improving Community Input

The construction has meant months of excruciating traffic, with local businesses reporting lost revenue as potential customers avoid the traffic jams.

These inconveniences would be more palatable if the end result was something community members wanted. But Kimeona Kane, chair of Waimanalo’s neighborhood board, doesn’t think it clears that bar.

He objects to the addition of turn lanes and a palm tree-lined median, saying the community has always managed traffic just fine on its own. For example, when cars want to make a left across traffic, oncoming drivers simply stop and wave them on their way.

“Who are we serving at that point?” he asked. “Are we serving the community that has grown very little, or are we serving those who are traversing our community, which causes more of that traffic?”

One of his main complaints is that local residents didn’t have enough opportunity for input on the plans.

The DOT held a pre-construction informational meeting in Waimanalo in March 2016, but Kane and other neighbors said it was easily missed. Plus, the board wasn’t as well organized as it is now.

Kalanianaole Highway runs through the village area of Waimanalo, where center medians and crosswalks have been added to improve safety. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“When we first began, there was no connection. There was distrust – not animosity – only because there was no mechanism for broaching what’s going on,” Ralston said.

That’s since changed. In 2018, the DOT started sending senior managers to meet with each neighborhood board quarterly, hoping to establish more familiar relationships with local residents.

Ralston called the current relationship with the DOT “very close,” noting that he led a few officials on a half-day walk along Kalanianaole Highway to point out areas of concern, such as the status of an incomplete section of sidewalk.

“The intent was just to make sure we build efficiency and safety into everything we did.”

DOT Director Ed Sniffen

He seconded Kane’s complaints –  regarding medians seen as unnecessary and ugly fencing – but spoke more optimistically about the path forward and the Transportation Department’s efforts to rectify an imperfect public input system.

The neighborhood board lacked a transportation committee and wasn’t ready for the initial announcement about plans for the road construction in 2016, Ralston said. And both Ralston and Kane acknowledged that rallying neighborhood board participation can be a challenge.

Part of the initial disconnect was probably because things feel more abstract at the planning stage, according to the DOT director.

“During the planning process, definitely, we saw less involvement than we’d wanted. During the construction process we found more,” Sniffen said.

Sniffen also noted that the department didn’t often send representatives to neighborhood board meetings prior to 2018.

“When we showed up, we were either asking for something or explaining a reason for something,” he said.

The department has since implemented new avenues for feedback, including increased neighborhood board attendance, interactive surveys on its website and even soliciting opinions through high school classrooms.

Bicycle Lanes?

One of the remaining points of contention is the plan for the construction and renovation of multimodal shoulder lanes, intended to provide access for both pedestrians and cyclists. Some community members see them as de facto bike lanes for outsiders.

“Why is there a need to have a full-system circuit all the way around to provide for these bikers?” Kane asked, expressing frustration with the need for cars to slow down when they get stuck behind cyclists.

Ralston agreed. Asked whether there are cyclists within the Waimanalo community who could benefit from these lanes, he said that most Waimanalo cyclists are kids who wouldn’t follow the bike lanes anyway.

“The bike lanes are for the cycling clubs someplace else,” he said.

Construction along Kalanianaole Highway is largely a resurfacing project. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Cycling is a fiery topic throughout Honolulu, but Hawaii Bicycling League’s executive director Travis Counsell feels that the opposition is most vocal in Waimanalo.

The group has tried to gain the community’s trust by hosting clean-up events in the neighborhood’s backroads – “one of the most pretty and attractive places to ride,” said Counsell.

Kane said the outreach effort, including attendance at the neighborhood board meetings, was welcome.

“I think it’s been a positive relationship thus far,” Kane said. “We still remind them that this is our community and that we live in this community and that there should be minimum to no impacts to our way of life. And so they’ve taken that to heart.”

“I really applaud their efforts to try and meet us there,” he added. “Do we have to meet them halfway? Well, that’s something that I think people would argue.”

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