Federal funding would cover much of the $63 million cost, but critics have other concerns as well.

A proposed pedestrian bridge that would provide a new route over the Ala Wai canal is attracting lively debate over its function, aesthetics and cost. 

Called “Ala Pono” by Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services, the bridge would span the approximate middle of the Ala Wai canal between Moiliili’s University Avenue and Waikiki’s Kalaimoku Street. 

The bridge is not a new idea. But conversation started again in earnest after the city announced in late June that it had received federal funding, paving the way for progress.

That grant is worth $25 million, and DTS deputy director Jon Nouchi said the city was previously provided another federal grant of about $25 million to help cover the project’s current total cost estimate of $63 million.

The federal funding represents a significant milestone for the project. But DTS has not yet put out a bid for a contractor to actually build the project, and Nouchi said they are still working through the community engagement phase, which has proven to be substantial.

The site of a proposed pedestrian bridge over the Ala Wai Canal is photographed Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Honolulu. Moiliili residents are concerned the bridge would allow vagrants and beach goers easier passage into their neighborhood. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The proposed pedestrian bridge is one part of a larger vision for a rejuvenated Ala Wai canal. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Decades have passed since a pedestrian bridge over the Ala Wai canal was first proposed, and the idea is receiving more traction now that there is more focus on promoting pedestrian and bicycle transportation, said Nouchi. The federal government, for example, incentivizes local governments to build infrastructure like this through a grant program that funds up to 80% of a project’s cost.

When it comes to prioritizing transportation improvements in Honolulu, the heavily trafficked route between the University of Hawaii Manoa and Waikiki ranks high, Nouchi said.

Proposals exist to turn University Avenue into a “complete street” with improved bike and pedestrian corridors, and a protected bike lane similar to South King Street’s has been proposed along Ala Wai Boulevard. 

The bridge is envisioned as part of this overall network — notwithstanding the crosswalks that have been removed to lessen city liability, including in areas that would lead to the pedestrian bridge. 

It is the most mature project we have in the region,” Nouchi said of the bridge. “And I just don’t want people to think that we’re designing things in a vacuum and that these are one-off projects that don’t matter.”

Timelines from 2019 estimated that construction would start this summer. That didn’t happen, which Nouchi says can be attributed partially to the coronavirus pandemic but also to wanting to keep up community engagement. 

“I’d like to chalk up how this process actually is taking a little bit longer because we are not rushing,” he said. 

The Waikiki Surf Club’s canoes would be impacted by the installation of a proposed pedestrian bridge over the Ala Wai Canal is photographed Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Honolulu. Moiliili residents are concerned the bridge would allow vagrants and beach goers easier passage into their neighborhood. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The bridge’s mauka side landing would come down into Ala Wai community park. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Engagement has been high. The city held community meetings in 2018, 2019 and 2021, though vocal critic and Moiliili resident Laura Ruby said that she feels the city had not listened enough to residents’ opposition. 

Ruby helped spur another community meeting in early September, hosted by state Sens. Les Ihara and Carol Fukunaga. Many attendees at that meeting did not like the idea of the bridge, as reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Opposition from the mauka side of the canal has largely dialed down, said Ruby, who had collected about 100 signatures from mauka residents opposing the project. At this point, she said, her main opposition is against what she sees as the bridge’s tall, gaudy design along the banks of the Ala Wai canal, which from some angles would obscure the view of Diamond Head

“We’ve come 50% to accepting a low, modest bridge,” Ruby said. Part of this acceptance is because federal funding has already been granted for a bridge at that location, she added, but costs could be brought down further with a lower-profile build.

A modest pedestrian bridge could be built. But that would require placing supports in the water, and Nouchi said DTS chose to avoid that in favor of a “clear span” so that paddlers would not have to navigate around pillars. Any pillars would need to be larger than the ones supporting McCully, Kalakaua, and Ala Moana bridges, he said, because Ala Pono would be built higher to avoid being overtaken by flooding.

The bridge’s design is currently a cable-stayed bridge, similar to suspension bridges but more typically used on a smaller scale. 

It would not be the first of its kind. Reading, England, completed its own pedestrian and cyclist cable-stayed bridge in 2015 called Christchurch Bridge to span the River Thames. 

But Christchurch Bridge was built for 5.9 million pounds, about $11.4 million, in 2023. Ala Pono is budgeted at $63 million. 

Architectural rendering of a pedestrian bridge over the Ala wai canal
The proposed pedestrian bridge is estimated to cost $63 million. Though federal funds are expected to cover about 80% of the cost, some residents are still puzzled at the high sticker price. (Screenshot/DTS)

Travis Counsell, executive director of Hawaii Bicycling League, supports the project in whatever form it takes. And he would understand a somewhat high cost — infrastructure projects of yesteryear likely did not have to jump through so many hoops, both regulatory and community-driven, he said.

“That doesn’t to me explain why it’s 60-something odd million dollars. That’s crazy,” he said.

Nouchi defended the price. He explained that it is still an estimate, and that Oahu has softer soil and higher construction standards to protect against seismic activity compared to Reading, England. Christchurch Bridge is also about 20% smaller than the Ala Was bridge would be, he said, requiring less material.

“That coupled with how much the index cost of construction has escalated through Covid was probably where we landed at that $63 million figure,” he said, estimating that construction costs rise about 5% each year. “We just don’t want to underestimate the cost, especially when we’re dealing with federal monies.”

Now that federal money is available, DTS officials are working with residents and their engineering and design consultants as they write up a request for proposals.

“When we put out a request for proposals, then basically a design-build contractor will come in and say ‘this is how I’m going to accomplish what you’ve put out there,’” said Nouchi. The contractor can also suggest small changes, he added. 

In the meantime, officials are awaiting a final environmental assessment after the draft was published in March 2021. The request for proposals is expected to come next year.

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