Managed parking is set to come to this popular beach teeming with tourists and residents who come to watch the sea turtles.

Laniakea’s notorious traffic jams may finally get some relief through the construction of a makai-side parking lot set to be constructed in the next couple of years. 

Sightseers have become enamored by the beach’s famous sea turtles in recent decades, coinciding with the entire North Shore’s explosion in popularity as more and more visitors venture up the coast from Waikiki and other areas. Traffic is essentially guaranteed. 

Residents have been complaining about this for years. Now, after receiving the final thumbs up from the Honolulu City Council for an initial permit, the state Department of Transportation is looking to build a new parking area on the makai side of the road and shift Kamehameha Highway mauka of its current location. 

The thinking is that this will stop people from crossing in front of cars so often, and as a result will help keep traffic flowing. In addition, this creates a parking lot that could be managed more granularly, following a statewide trend of more managed tourism.

Barriers Kamehameha Highway Laniakea Beach North Shore
Barriers separate Kamehameha Highway traffic from a pedestrian path across from Laniakea Beach. Pedestrians crossing from the mauka parking lot to the beach have to cross in front of cars, disrupting the flow of traffic on during busy times. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Though the improvements are meant to be an interim and partial solution, part of the larger effort to move Kamehameha Highway inland away from rising ocean water, testifiers at the council meeting overwhelmingly supported the project. 

“It is imperative that the parking be managed and not be haphazard with cars backing into traffic,” wrote resident Barbara Fisher in her supportive testimony. She was joined by 13 others, including former state Sen. Gil Riviere. 

Managed Parking

DOT head Ed Sniffen said during a council meeting that under the project’s timeline advertising for a contractor would start in June, and that construction would begin around the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. 

Officials acknowledge this won’t be a silver bullet to all of the North Shore’s traffic problems – those issues run deeper. Communities along this stretch of shoreline are solely connected via Kamehameha Highway, which contains one lane of traffic moving in each direction. 

When traffic builds up in one section of the highway – whether that be at Laniakea or at some other beach – motorists have no choice but to endure the logjam. 

And traffic can strike from a variety of situations. During wintertime surf swells, when the waves are larger than life and the crowds are even larger, it can be almost impossible to find parking in individual beach lots. 

Cars line the side of the road. Traffic slows. Drivers carefully parallel park into whatever snug spaces they can find, ignoring signs that declare “no parking.”

All the while, residents hoping to buy groceries or visit family and friends drive Kamehameha highway at their peril. 

At Laniakea, if they’re lucky, visiting drivers can find a spot in the current dirt lot situated mauka of Kamehameha Highway. 

About a decade ago, the DOT put up barriers to block any kind of parking. A group of local residents sued, claiming that beach access was being restricted, and a Hawaii Circuit Court judge ordered that the barriers be removed in 2015. 

Crosswalks were set up from the mauka lot to the beach, to help contain road-crossing to predictable spaces.

But the setup still ensures that people have to cross the road to access the beach, interrupting cars. 

State Rep. Sean Quinlan, whose district includes North Shore and Koolauloa, said that the project will be an improvement even though it won’t single-handedly clear the roads. 

“It’s one more step that we have to take along the way to improving, really, the health of that highway,” he said. He added that even emergency vehicles get stuck in the traffic.

Kamehameha Highway Laniakea Beach North Shore
Kamehameha Highway has one lane going toward Haleiwa and one lane going toward Kahuku. On busy days, traffic builds quickly. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Quinlan chairs the House Tourism Committee and is a big proponent of managed tourism. When he was running for reelection last year, he had pointed to Laniakea as one of his constituents’ most vocalized concerns.

This year, he authored a bill that would’ve dissolved and refashioned the Hawaii Tourism Authority into an agency more focused on destination management. The bill made it all the way to conference committee before dying. 

“I believe very strongly that the future of Laniakea beach park has to be a reservation system,” Quinlan said, proposing that some spots could be reserved for residents and the rest could be paid spots. 

“But we can’t do that in an unmanaged parking lot,” he said.

He hopes to enlist the Division of State Parks to manage the lot, which through new legislation recently became exempt from the bidding process when it comes to hiring parking lot operators and concessions.

Parking And Traffic: ‘They Do Go Hand-In-Hand’

This conversation about a managed versus unmanaged parking lot also came up during Honolulu City Council meetings. 

Because the construction would take place along the shoreline, which is deemed a Special Management Area, the DOT first had to get SMA permit approval from the City Council. The council voted in favor of the resolution during its June meeting.

Originally, the permit’s proposed parking was designed essentially as a pull-off on the makai shoulder of the road. Council member Matt Weyer and testifiers believed that cars pulling in and out would still disrupt the flow of traffic.

He added a floor amendment during June’s full council meeting, stipulating that the plan include at least 50 parking spaces in a managed lot with a designated entrance and exit. This also sets up a design that would make it simple for an entity to manage at some future point.

The DPP had some procedural concerns, but ultimately the council voted to approve the permit with Weyer’s accompanying floor amendment.

“We understand that parking is important, but we think that it should be addressed outside of the SMA permit,” said DPP director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna during the council’s meeting. 

The worry, said Takeuchi Apuna, is that the legal question of beach access will become conflated with whether there’s available parking. This would be tricky in beach areas like Lanikai, where parking is extremely limited

Weyer responded that this case is unique, and that the aim of the project is to improve traffic flow.

Adding a managed parking lot on the makai side of the road is in line with that goal, “so they do go hand-in-hand,” Weyer said during the meeting. He also said that a managed system of parking could be good to pursue in the future. 

Not everyone agrees with the project. Resident Racquel Achiu testified in opposition, saying that she’s concerned that millions of dollars are being invested in an area next to rising seas. She’s also worried about the potential cultural impact of shifting the highway mauka. 

The DOT plans to eventually shift more of the highway further mauka, but the agency still needs at least a decade to fully assess and mitigate the cultural artifacts that would be affected, Sniffen said during the Honolulu Council’s Zoning Committee meeting in May

He also said that this current shift is projected to give the road an additional 25 years of leeway with regards to sea level rise.

There might be many more cars driving around the island by then. In the long run, said Quinlan, “We have to start managing flows of people.”

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