The dry West Oahu neighborhood has just one way in and out. A decades-long push to build another route has failed to gain traction.

The Lahaina wildfire disaster has heightened long-standing safety concerns in Makakilo, where more than 20,000 residents face similar obstacles to evacuate and an effort to build a second exit out of the densely packed West Oahu neighborhood has languished for decades.

Many residents have pressed city leaders for years to build an extension of Makakilo Drive that would open another way out, near the H1 Freeway east of the neighborhood.

Instead, they’ve watched as other road projects around the island have been finished while theirs has failed to get past the design phase.

After Lahaina, “People feel more at risk. It’s more obvious,” Makakilo resident Deborah Agles said. “We’ve had fires out here for a long time … It’s a dry, hot area. People are more fearful now that Lahaina happened, and in part because we saw how disorganized (the evacuation) was.”

Makakilo Drive is a dead end street, photographed Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Kapolei. Residents have expressed concern about having only one way in and out of their community. A large vegetation fire could trap Makakilo residents. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Makakilo Drive is a dead end street. Residents have expressed concern about having only one way in and out of their community. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

City transportation leaders on Oahu say they’re reviewing not just Makakilo but also other communities across the island with similar challenges evacuating during a wildfire or other emergency. The prospect of building a new road through the steep pass leading out of Makakilo remains daunting and expensive, they add.

Meanwhile, Makakilo residents were further reminded of how vulnerable they are to disaster in early September when a small wildfire broke out there. 

Fire crews managed to contain the 2.5-acre blaze, which reached a backyard and threatened to destroy three homes. If it had spread, however, residents would have had just one way out of the dry, hilly neighborhood. Some fear they would face a similar traffic nightmare as those who fled the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina, based on the gridlock they encounter whenever there’s a bad vehicle crash.

Agles said she first heard of plans to extend Makakilo Drive and open a second access point when she bought her home there in 1983.

Michael Ferreira, another longtime resident, said “it’s to the point now where it’s become comical” that the extension effort has stalled for so long while so many other local transportation projects have gotten built.

“It seems to me the people out here in Makakilo and Kapolei are second-class citizens, and whatever they want downtown … we’ve taken a back seat to,” Ferreira said.

Jon Nouchi, deputy director for the city’s Department of Transportation Services, said that since the Lahaina disaster his agency has started talking to landowners around Makakilo to see whether the city might create a secondary emergency evacuation route that utilizes existing, private roads.

It might be similar to the Waianae Coast Emergency Access Road — a network of gated roads that serves as an emergency alternative to Farrington Highway.

He did not provide specifics because he said talks are still in the early stages. 

Meanwhile, the Makakilo Drive Extension project, or MDE, has presented several big and expensive design challenges, Nouchi said. The road would require a steep grade down the hill and would come into conflict with “historic resources” protected by historic preservation law, he said.

Recent official estimates have put the MDE’s price tag at nearly $84 million. However, several weeks before the Lahaina wildfire, DTS Director Roger Morton estimated that the extension could cost as much as $200 million. Federal highway dollars often cover most of the cost of such major local road projects.

Still Not A Through Street

The Makakilo Drive extension would run from where it currently dead-ends, at the neighborhood’s eastern edge, to a spot several thousand feet down the hill and connect with Kualakai Parkway, or North South Road. That state-controlled street links to the H1 Freeway a short distance away.

However, in recent years the project has stalled in the design phase. Residents say they’ve had a difficult time getting answers from the city about why.

Without a final design, the project can’t proceed to its next phase and seek out the millions of federal highways dollars needed to actually get built, officials say.

RM Towill, the firm contracted to do the design work, referred all questions regarding the extension project to the city.

By June 2021, the city had released $4 million of the $6 million allocated for that design work, according to emails shared by Agles between Makakilo residents and a member of Councilmember Andria Tupola’s staff. The neighborhood is part of her district.

At that time, the project had two “incomplete plans” and a third one that hadn’t yet been started, according to Louis Galdeira, then a community liaison in Tupola’s office. 

On Thursday, Nouchi said the project had hit a snag in 2019 when an updated environmental assessment for the project paused. That’s because key policy leaders on the island removed it one year earlier from a somewhat obscure yet significant list of projects called the Transportation Improvement Program, or the TIP.

Any local projects that require millions of federal highways dollars to get done need to be on the TIP.

Up to that point, the city and designers were pursuing a project that would fill parts of the steep gulch down the mountain to handle the road, Nouchi said. However, the extension still faced historic preservation issues because remnants of the old Waiahole Ditch Irrigation System which, helped develop the Ewa Plan, remain there, he added.

Still, some Makakilo residents, including John and Rita Schockley, have wondered wether the recent influx of more than $1.4 billion to Hawaii through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could help make the extension happen, despite all the challenges it faces.

About $1 billion of that money is going toward transportation projects across the islands, including roads and bridges.

Nouchi said that the city would have to evaluate whether such a project meets the criteria for the grant funding before pursuing those dollars.

Trying To Get Back On The List

The extension would also pass right by a 50-year-old rock quarry carved into the hill. It’s run by Grace Pacific, and the company recently filed an application to expand operations with 24-hour asphalt production. Grace also wants to extend the quarry’s closure date by 15 years, to 2047.

However, Andrea Galvin, a representative of Grace Pacific’s parent company, Alexander & Baldwin, said they don’t expect the proposed Makakilo extension to impact the operations.

For the extension to get done, Oahu’s transportation leaders first need to add it back onto the TIP, which gets updated every three years.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, from left, shakes hands with past president of the Japanese Culture Center Hawaii Carole Hayashino during a plaque dedication and blessing of the Honouliuli National Historic Site takes place Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, in Kunia. Japanese-Americans and those of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned here without due process when it was called Honouliuli Internment Camp during World War II. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office said that he’s encouraged Makakilo residents to keep pursuing the extension project through OMPO. The project has previously been listed as a priority project, but was later taken off the list. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The extension was placed on the list in prior years but later removed. The reasons why aren’t clear, although Makakilo residents point to changing political priorities. It was last on the TIP covering 2015 to 2018, according to Mark Garrity, executive director of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.

OMPO’s powerful Policy Board, composed of elected and transportation officials, decide which projects make it on the TIP.

In 2005, a separate OMPO group, the Citizen Advisory Committee, labeled the Makakilo Drive Extension as its top priority project but that still failed to get it done, according to Frank Genadio, a longtime member of that group. Members of the advisory committee “have no clout whatsoever,” he said.

In April, Genadio and several other Makakilo residents took Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, along with Nouchi, Managing Director Michael Formby, and several other staff members on a tour through the neighborhood to show the need for the extension.

Genadio and others said this week that Blangiardi was open to the idea but noncommittal. They further raised the issue earlier this year at one of Blangiardi’s town hall sessions, held in Ewa, but didn’t make any progress, they said.

On Tuesday, Blangiardi spokesman Ian Scheuring said that the mayor and Formby made clear to the residents that they support the extension efforts and that they encouraged the group to work with OMPO to make the extension a priority.

“There is no shortage of demand for federal funds, so advocacy is important,” Scheuring said via email.

Currently, the extension project is listed as a “mid-range” project on a different OMPO list: The 2045 Regional Transportation Program. That “mid-range” label means the city might pursue the project any time between 2026 and 2035, according to Garrity.

Meanwhile, police say they arrested a juvenile and made a fourth-degree arson case for the Sept. 5 fire in Makakilo. However, their investigation is currently pending further development, according to Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department.

Update: Civil Beat has updated its policy on pointing out updates in stories.

Since the Lahaina fire, city officials on Oahu have issued at least 20 violation to property owners across the island for overgrown vegetation that could cause a fire. None of those violations have gone to the owners of land surrounding Makakilo, according to Scheuring.

Genadio, 90, moved to Makakilo in 1992. He said he doubts that the extension will get done in his lifetime.

“I think a lot of it depends on the mayor. If the mayor says let’s get it done, then it gets done,” he said.

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