A longstanding project to convert the alternate path into a paved trail and evacuation route has been stuck in “perpetual planning.”

On Aug. 8, as scores of people got stuck in gridlock fleeing the Lahaina wildfire, some managed to escape north on a lesser-known network of private roads that decades ago were used to haul sugar cane to the Pioneer Mill.

The main access to those rugged paths in the hills of West Maui is known as the old cane haul road. In town, it runs upland and parallel to Route 30, which had been blocked the day of the fire in multiple spots by downed power lines.

“None of us are told that’s an emergency backup route,” said Jordan Imai, a local zipline operator who was born and raised in Lahaina.

He’s familiar with the terrain above town, and he used the old cane haul road to evacuate along with his 91-year-old grandmother and two dogs.

“I just know that’s a route that I can use to get away,” he said Tuesday.

Many others didn’t, however.

The Lahaina Civic Center is in north Lahaina along Honoapiilani Highway. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The old cane haul road leads north out of Lahaina, running above the Lahaina Civic Center, which is pictured center-left. Some evacuees managed to use that rugged road to flee the Aug. 8 fire despite encountering a locked gate. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui County officials won’t say yet whether they could have better used that road as a public evacuation route or if it would have allowed more people to escape more quickly during the fire.

In an email, the county’s Joint Information Center said it would be “irresponsible” to discuss that possibility as official investigations proceed into how the fire’s evacuation was handled.

Community advocates have been pleading for years that the county refurbish the old cane haul road into a fully paved, multi-use trail that might also serve as an evacuation route during an emergency. 

The restored road would be part of a larger, 25-mile bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly route that’s planned to run across the Valley Isle’s west coast. However, records show county officials have dragged their feet when it comes to creating the so-called West Maui Greenway, frustrating project advocates.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Saman Dias, who chairs the nonprofit Maui Bicycling League, which is part of the Hawaii Bicycling League. 

“It’s just sad to even think about,” she said. “But if people even knew it existed it would have saved some people’s lives.”

Following the fires, Dias and other advocates have urged county and federal leaders to make the West Maui Greenway a priority so that the public has access to it before another disaster occurs. 

Maui County representatives say the West Maui Greenway and other projects planned prior to the fire are “still on the table,” but that many will be delayed as officials address more pressing fire needs.

“Priorities changed drastically on Aug. 8,” JIC officials said in an email Saturday. “Local, state and federal officials are looking at alternative evacuation routes as the recovery process begins, but it is too early in the process to discuss particular routes.”

Stuck At The Gates

Even those who knew they could use the old cane haul road to get out on Aug. 8 ran into barriers.

Imai said that two of his lifelong friends, Joshua Saribay and Gilour Gerling, traveled to where the cane haul road intersects with Keawe Street, a major Lahaina artery, and urged drivers there to turn onto the cane haul road.

However, many of the drivers who tried to flee Lahaina via that route were eventually blocked by a locked gate and turned back toward town, Imai said.

Map of the Old Cane Haul Road on Maui and blocked gate along existing bikeway.
The proposed West Maui Greenway would run through Lahaina, possibly including the old can haul road. Officials might also run the route further makai, near the highway, plans show. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

The gate is located on the road where it runs above the Lahaina Civic Center, and is controlled by Kaanapali Land Management Corp., according to Imai. He said he has a key to unlock the gate as part of his job so that he can access the zipline course he manages in Kaanapali whenever Route 30, or Honoapiilani Highway, is blocked.

Imai said at least several dozen cars made their way north out of harm’s way that day after he opened the gate. A county official arrived later to open the gate, but it had already been unlocked, he added.

There was also a police officer parked in front of the gate when he arrived, Imaid said, but he wasn’t sure what the officer was doing there.

Kaanapali Land Management officials did not respond to a request for comment. An updated voicemail greeting states that the company’s headquarters burned down in the fire.

Many of those who had turned back at the gate then tried to access Leialii Parkway, which leads to Route 30. However, a separate locked gate there impeded the way forward, Imai said.

Eventually, someone broke that lock, giving drivers access to the highway.

Jonathan Chee, a Lahaina resident who fled the fire to the south, said last month that his nephew and cousin had broken a locked gate by the cane haul road to help evacuees there escape. It’s not clear whether that’s the gate Chee had referenced. Neither he, his nephew nor his cousin responded to requests for comment.

A Project Buried In ‘Perpetual Planning’

An official master plan for the West Maui Greenway, completed in September 2022 for the Maui Metropolitan Planning Organization, says the full trail, which would stretch from Ukumehame in the south to Lipoa Point in the north, could serve as an alternate route for emergency vehicles during wildfires “when the adjacent highway is clogged by evacuations.”

“West Maui has experienced several wildfires in recent years,” the plan says. “Wildfires can damage roads, paths and trails in impacted areas and limit access to roadways in the vicinity of the fires.” 

The old cane haul road where it crosses Keawe Street offered an alternate route north for some on Aug. 8. Two of the town’s residents parked their dirt bikes at that intersection the day of the fire and urged drivers on Keawe to use the cane haul road to escape, evacuees said. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lee Chamberlain, who co-founded the Maui Bicycling League, said the general public’s cars and trucks could use the road as a single-lane evacuation route in addition to emergency vehicles. Crews originally built the road to accommodate heavy trucks hauling cane, so it could certainly handle smaller vehicles, he said.

But the West Maui Greenway has fallen victim to what Chamberlain calls  “perpetual planning,” in which public officials agree to develop plans for a project and then it gradually loses momentum among supporters.

“It’s a diversion tactic is what it is, in my opinion,” Chamberlain said. Money gets diverted to the planning process, and then the project gets shelved, he said.

In 2016, then-Mayor Alan Arakawa had hoped to include $1.5 million in the 2017 fiscal year’s budget to launch the first several miles of the West Maui Greenway, county records show. 

Advocates came out to testify in support of the plan before Maui County Council members, and county officials said they intended to start by developing the first phase of the greenway from south of Lahaina to as far north as Lahainaluna Road in town.

Honoapiilani Highway wends through Lahaina and West Maui, Sept. 26, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Honoapiilani Highway hugs the coast through Lahaina and West Maui. Old cane haul roads and other unpaved paths helped some residents escape the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Ultimately, the council opted to include just $300,000 for the West Maui Greenway in the final budget for fiscal year 2017. Chamberlain and other project advocates still considered it a good step forward. 

But once that funding was secured, the county Public Works Department appeared to drag its feet, according to Chamberlain.

“They kicked this can down the road for literally a year and a half,” he said, while he and others pressed public works officials to take action.

Then the department decided to change the pilot project’s scope, documents provided by Chamberlain show. Instead of developing the first 5.6 miles of paved trail into town, the department focused on a difficult stretch of less than a mile running through town, from Keawe to Fleming Road.

Chamberlain said county officials refused to provide him with their plans. He had to compel them to release it with help from the state Office of Information Practices

A March 2020 request to OIP shows that Chamberlain asked for that agency’s help in getting a response to his questions regarding the West Maui Greenway. Once Chamberlain obtained those documents, they included a $24,150 estimate for aerial photography of the new, smaller project route.

Chamberlain, a helicopter pilot, said he believed that price was far too expensive. He told Arakawa: “This looks like fraud, waste and abuse.” 

Keawe Street heads into and out of Lahaina on the north side. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Keawe Street heads into and out of Lahaina on the town’s north side. It intersects with the old cane haul road. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

However, that so-called “photogrammetric” aerial imagery work was complex and time-consuming, said Reed Ariyoshi, the managing engineer at Warren S. Unemori Engineering, which gave that cost estimate to the county. The price included surveying and topographic mapping, not just taking pictures from overhead, Ariyoshi said Tuesday.

The county determined it was unable to proceed under the altered scope that it had decided to pursue. The push for a multi-use trail, which could also be used as another evacuation route through Lahaina, was set back several years in the process.

“It got to a certain point and then it dropped off the radar,” Ariyoshi said. “I don’t think the county ever went beyond that to go to the next phase.”

Maui County public works officials were unavailable this week to discuss the project. The JIC said that they were extremely busy handling other post-fire issues.

In an email, Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita said, “We look forward to continue working with the entire West Maui community on this project and other community led efforts.”

Dias remains persistent in getting public officials to follow through.

“Enhancing our emergency evacuation routes is an investment in the safety and well-being of our community, and it aligns with established priorities in the Hawaii Bicycle Plan,” she wrote in an email this week to U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda’s office.

“I believe that this initiative will not only improve our readiness for emergencies but also promote sustainable transportation and community resilience.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author