About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Russell Ruderman is a former state senator and Big Island business owner. He writes about state and county politics, business, agriculture and the local food industry. Russell lives in Kea’au with his wife and daughter. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Civil Beat. You can reach him at russellruderman@gmail.com.


A powerful Big Island landowner seems to be backing off it’s opposition to a much-needed road from Puna to Hilo. Now, the county needs to act.

For many years, the lower Puna community has lived with a situation that would be intolerable anywhere else in our state.

This is the traffic congestion and the highway closures on Highway 130, aka Keaau-Pahoa Road, which is the only way in or out for about 25,000 residents.

Every workday there are traffic delays affecting commuters here, often taking 30 minutes or more to go three miles, morning and afternoon. There is nowhere in our state where such an unnecessary traffic delay occurs regularly, and where there are no alternate roads to bypass it. Along some parts there is a single lane serving about 10,000 daily commuters.

When I worked in Honolulu and commuted home to the Big Island on Fridays, I would encounter frustrating traffic delays on the way from downtown to the Honolulu airport, but there are alternate highways and surface roads if it got bad enough.

Arriving at the Hilo airport with only a few miles to drive home, I’d be in traffic with delays of 30 to 45 minutes on a typical day, with no alternate roads to take. This rural community has worse traffic problems, with more serious consequences, than urban Honolulu.

But it gets much worse than delays and inconvenience. When the highway is closed for an accident, these delays become two or three hours. When there is a fatal accident, it’s closed (not delayed, closed!) for six hours or more. This happens every year at least, because this stretch of highway has long been the deadliest stretch of highway in our state.

The Puna district on Hawaii island is about 500 square miles, roughly the size of Oahu. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)
The Puna district on Hawaii island is about 500 square miles, roughly the size of Oahu. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

During these times, there is literally no way to get from the homes of these 25,000 people to the airport, to the university, to jobs in Hilo, back home at night, and to the only hospital in East Hawaii. It’s not just inconvenience, it’s a matter of life and death for someone with an urgent medical condition.

Puna is the fastest-growing district in our state, even with the losses from the 2018 lava flows. It’s also the most populous district on the island with over 50,000 residents. It’s essentially a suburb of Hilo, and where a lot of Hilo workers live. Because of the relatively affordable land and many vacant lots, this growth will continue for many years.

The Puna Community Development Plan has long called for a Puna Makai Alternate Road, or PMAR. Every survey of Puna residents finds traffic and inadequate roads are the biggest issues. Residents and planners have for decades looked to the development of Railroad Avenue as the logical path for PMAR.

So why has there been no progress on this urgent community need?

Shipman Estate.

For many years, W.H. Shipman Ltd., which owns much of the land surrounding a proposed new route, has blocked plans for what is the best possible route from Lower Puna to Hilo along Railroad Avenue. Although mostly privately owned now, it already exists as a right of way. Using this route for PMAR is logical and doable.

Shipman has opposed PMAR for many years, most often citing the fear of increased farm theft as the reason, on behalf of its tenants.

But now, there’s some hope that Shipman might be backing down from its historic opposition.

This page from the Puna Community Development Plan shows the potential bike path and road along Railroad Avenue connecting Puna to Hilo. (Screenshot)

When I asked Shipman for comment for this column, Peggy Farias, president of W.H. Shipman, responded in part:

“Should the State and/or County decide to move forward with design and construction, W.H. Shipman, Limited will work with them to find an alignment that minimizes the negative impacts on our neighbors and farmers,” she wrote in an email.

“Solutions that reduce the number of cars on the road will, in the long term, be more effective than building another road,” she said. “Some of these solutions include improving public transportation, and focusing on development that brings jobs, services, and housing closer together.”

This is good news. The company’s apparent openness to PMAR has not been expressed in the past. We all want more local jobs, better public transportation, and fewer cars on the road, but these are hypothetical. In reality we still need a functional evacuation route.  

There are some real logistical issues, each solvable. Where PMAR ends in Hawaiian Paradise Park, the state’s most populated subdivision, needs to be smartly planned to minimize negative effects, such as multiple outlets to distribute the traffic.

At the Hilo end, PMAR would most logically connect with Railroad Avenue in Hilo, but an alternative is to merge onto Highway 11 between Keaau and Hilo, perhaps using Milo Street. This would address some potential concerns from the Panaewa community, although Railroad Avenue already goes through this area in Hilo.

As a first step, this route could be quickly built as an emergency road/bike path/walkway, which would bring great benefits quickly. It could be opened as an evacuation route in emergencies, and when the highway is closed.

As a bike route, like Rails-to-Trails projects nationwide, it would provide much needed recreational and commuting options, removing cars from the road. Hilo would then be a 20 minute, mostly level, beautiful bike ride from Hawaiian Paradise Park, a climate-friendly commuting alternative and a visitor attraction. Then in future years it can be opened to a full alternate route.

The county needs to build the road, since the state is unlikely to start such a project. We need the county to make this happen. We have a mayor who is bold and forward-looking, and responsive to people’s needs, and apparently, the opposition from Shipman has changed.

This is refreshing and new, so our hopes are up. Even if Shipman cooperates, it will take many years, so let’s start.

A large and growing population has an urgent need for an alternate route. It’s not a matter of convenience, it’s about public safety and disaster preparedness. Shipman Estate and the county need to step up and meet this need.


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About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Russell Ruderman is a former state senator and Big Island business owner. He writes about state and county politics, business, agriculture and the local food industry. Russell lives in Kea’au with his wife and daughter. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Civil Beat. You can reach him at russellruderman@gmail.com.


Latest Comments (0)

W H Shipman’s board vice chair and director is Douglas Shipman Adams. He is a retired Army officer, an attorney AND Director of the County’s Research and Development Department.

KanakaOPuna · 6 months ago

"If you build it, they will come." And keep on coming. There IS no practical long-term means to make any commute traffic-free, because the market responds - it HATES that low-traffic vacuum. "Honey, now that they've built the new road into Puna, I'm thinking the housing there is a BARGAIN..." Capitalism and the Tragedy of the Commons are ruining the whole planet.

PaloloLolo · 6 months ago

To everyone who says "just widen 130" ... study the plats to figure out how much land acquisition would be required, and you'll see that widening 130 is "highly unlikely".

fiftythree · 6 months ago

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