Residents stock up or stay away as they prepare for APEC changes
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 6, 2011
Could this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit end up being Oahu's "Carmageddon" -- a dire warning of urban gridlock that instead results in a commuter's dream?
Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, certainly hopes so.
"I've been warning everybody I can to take the week off and stay off the roads," Meisenzahl said. "So I'm really hoping APEC turns out to be just like Carmageddon: Much ado about nothing."
In July, Southern California traffic experts warned of an apocalyptic gridlock if everyone behaved and drove normally when a 10-mile stretch of the I-405 Freeway -- one of the region's major freeways -- was shut down to allow demolition of a bridge. Instead, enough Southern Californian drivers left town or otherwise made temporary changes in their driving behavior that resulted in a traffic dream unlike any since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games produced similar images of wide-open freeways.
With President Barack Obama and his counterparts from 20 other APEC nations in town later this week, Waikiki will be locked down into a security zone never before seen in Hawaii.
So rather than work their way through ID checkpoints and blocked streets, some of Les Among's neighbors in Waikiki are staying home with enough provisions to wait out APEC, surrounded by the same security apparatus that guards the president.
"People are stocking up on food because they don't want to fight the traffic," said Among, a member of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board. "They don't plan on driving anywhere."
Others who live in Waikiki, such as Bob Hinman, are using APEC as a good excuse to visit the neighbor islands.
"I see this place turning into a zoo," Hinman said. "It's safer to get out of here."
Outbound planes that normally fly to Las Vegas and the U.S. West Coast this time of year at a pre-holiday, round-trip price of $450 instead are leaving much fuller at $900, said Rachel Shimamoto, manager of the Travel Ways travel agency.
"The fares are high because no more space," Shimamoto said. "People are traveling like it's a major holiday weekend, like Thanksgiving."
So if enough people across Oahu use APEC as the perfect excuse to work from home, fly to Vegas, get on the roads earlier than expected and conduct their daily business outside of APEC security zones, University of Hawaii traffic expert and former mayoral candidate Panos Prevedouros believes there's a good chance that Oahu drivers could enjoy unprecedented clear traffic.
"All around Waikiki there will be localized congestion," Prevedouros said. "For the rest of us, traffic could be way better than usual."
Prevedouros saw a version of L.A.'s Carmageddon phenomenon at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, "when a lot of Greeks stayed home and watched the Olympics at home, leaving the (Olympic) venues 30 percent full."
But there's a downside if Oahu roads suddenly become clear during the first few days of the APEC conference, Prevedouros said.
After a few days of wide open roads, Oahu drivers could revert to their old driving habits late in the week just in time for the arrival of Obama and other APEC delegations, whose motorcades will cause traffic disruptions, especially next weekend.
"There is some danger of people falling into complacency," Prevedouros said.
Hinman lives on a sailboat in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor and is not taking any chances.
Like other Waikiki residents, Hinman already made plans to fly to Maui this weekend and will be off island during the entire APEC conference.
"We've seen the whole island come to a screeching halt just when Obama's here" for his annual Oahu holiday vacation, Hinman said. "Imagine 20 other heads of state? I'm out of here."
Other Waikiki regulars don't have that luxury, however. Tourism industry employees have to report to work, APEC or not.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii has been trying to help ease the traffic pain for employees by keeping them informed, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations.
"We've been giving out all the information on traffic flow, the shuttles that will be coming in," Vieira said. "We've been making sure that everyone's planning for it, understanding where the closures are."
The Starwood properties have had meetings before work shifts begin, from housekeeping to restaurant workers, to plan for APEC traffic. The company has not done any official carpools but has encouraged use of shuttles, buses and carpools.
Vieira expects that local residents who do not have business in Waikiki will stay away during APEC week.
"I don't think people are just going to drive through Waikiki to see what's going on," he said. "We've had things like this before, but never to this level."
On the other end of Oahu, Richard Foust and his wife, DeLaine, were still deciding last week whether to leave their Ko Olina condo when Obama and the other APEC leaders meet at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort on Nov. 13.
"It looks like we're going to be under house arrest during this period," Richard Foust said.
He and DeLaine considered taking a mini-vacation on Oahu's North Shore to avoid all of the security hassles.
But they also had other alternatives.
"We've considered suicide but that seemed kind of rash and overdone," Richard joked. "We thought about getting some drugs from our doctor to put ourselves in a medically induced coma. Thirdly, we could invite some friends over and make a party of it and see who'll still be alive if we don't kill each other."
Whatever path the Fousts follow, it will not lead to them driving in and out of Ko Olina through heavy security that will close the main entrance to the resort and force residents to access a dirt road normally used for construction equipment.
"We're definitely not going to be going in and out," Hinman said. "It's not going to be worth the hassle, barring an emergency like we run out of liquor."
Star-Advertiser reporter Gene Park contributed to this report.