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Street analysis uncovers worst of the worst

By Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 7:09 p.m. HST, Feb 13, 2014

Makiki resident Sally Davis has lived in Hono­lulu for 27 years, so, like many motorists here, she's learned the traditional Oahu art of dodging potholes.

But even the most skilled drivers can only do so much to dodge disaster.

On Feb. 22, Davis said, she was driving her Jeep Cherokee Sport mauka on Kalakaua Avenue between Kapiolani Boulevard and King Street. Just as she crossed a particularly large and notorious pothole, the jeep jolted sharply and Davis heard a loud bang. Moments later a red light in the dash warned her the jeep was overheating. The next day, after towing her car to a local mechanic, Davis said she learned the engine was knocked out of place when the engine-mount hit the pothole. The damage, she said, would cost more than $700 to fix.

She filed a claim with the city. She told friends what happened — and they immediately knew the pothole-culprit. "The one right by the key shop?" one asked. Not long after the incident, she said, the city patched it.

For years, crumbling and neglected roads across Oahu have tormented drivers such as Davis and pummeled their vehicles. They've rattled nerves, blown out tires and cost each motorist hundreds of dollars on average in annual repairs.

Now, as city and state officials announce sweeping new plans to catch up on the backlog of pothole-strewn streets that need fixing, new data pinpoint where the island's worst roads are. And it comes after independent studies have found what many local drivers suspected for years: The roads here are in awful shape when compared with the rest of the United States.


» Click Here | An updated listing of Hawaii's road conditions that are in failed and serious condition. (Courtesy Office of the Mayor.)


» Star-Advertiser: New city data detail the condition of Oahu’s roads and find that nearly 28 percent range from “poor” to “failed.” Also, what materials go into making our roads.

» Hawaii News Now: Tonight, an in-depth look at two City Council districts that need the most work.


» Star-Advertiser: For years, city and state governments put off needed maintenance and repair work on roadways and diverted funds to other priorities. Also, critics wonder if the city can pull off its plan to spend big money on road repairs.

» Hawaii News Now: Will a more expensive asphalt product keep our road repair in place longer than the next heavy rain?


For nine days the Star-Advertiser will print full-page maps of each City Council district highlighting road conditions in each area.

"Streets may not always be a high priority — or they may not have been a high priority in the past. And because of that, we're now having to do more reactive work to try to keep them safe and passable," said Ross Sasa­mura, the new director of the city's Department of Facility Maintenance, which coordinates roadwork across Oahu. "We need to make some substantive change to get our roads to the level that they need to be."

By 2008 the road-repair neglect left Hono­lulu with a dubious distinction: About 62 percent of its major streets had fallen into poor condition, and that was the third-highest share among U.S. cities with a population of at least 500,000.

Only San Jose, Calif., and Los Angeles ranked worse than Hono­lulu, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research firm TRIP found using data collected by the Federal Highway Administration. Hono­lulu's roads were in worse shape than cities such as San Francisco, New York and New Orleans.

The torn-up pavement also cost each Hono­lulu motorist on average $701 each year in repairs, new tires and added fuel, TRIP found.

The latest TRIP analysis, based on 2011 data, shows some improvement. But the bumpy roads still wear on drivers and their cars. TRIP reduced the number of major Hono­lulu roads in poor condition to 43 percent. The average cost to drivers was cut to $598 a year.

In recent years, upkeep of major thoroughfares statewide has also fallen behind in national studies. Hawaii in 2008 had the largest percentage of state-owned roads in disrepair in the nation, the D.C.-based advocacy group Smart Growth America found.

Meanwhile, even after Mayor Kirk Caldwell last month announced his five-year plan to repave the island's worst roads, city officials in charge of roadwork are still trying to determine the full scope of the work that needs to be done. In the process they've given the public a new view of citywide road conditions.

From August to October the city hired civil engineering firm Sam O. Hirota Inc. to complete the first survey of Hono­lulu's roads using new imaging technology akin to "Street View" on Google Maps. It was developed by a California-based firm, Earthmine.

Vehicles mounted with special cameras zipped across the city capturing unprecedented images of the roads. The method replaced the work crews that had previously surveyed the streets. For the first time, Hono­lulu could rate all of its streets using a special index developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to measure pavement damage.

Finally, a detailed picture of the condition of Hono­lulu's neighborhood roads emerged.

Under the Army Corps' "Pavement Condition Index," 56.6 percent of the 3,500 lane-miles of road maintained by the city were found to be in "good" or "satisfactory" shape, while 27.8 percent were "poor," "very poor," "serious" or, worst of all, "failed." (An additional 15.6 percent were in "fair" shape.)

Sasamura presented those findings to the City Council's Committee on Public Works and Sustainability last month. It was a snapshot in time, as some of those roads have been fixed since then.

But as community complaints over road conditions have grown louder in recent months, Council members wanted more information. They requested a list of Hono­lulu's worst roads and a more detailed breakdown of conditions by the island's nine council districts.

Drivers across Oahu can share horror stories of potholes, cracks and car damage. However, Hono­lulu's worst-of-the-worst roads — the ones with a failing grade instead of just a poor one — are mostly concentrated in City Council Districts 4, 5 and 6, covering a region that stretches from Hawaii Kai to Aiea. There were 222 failed city road segments across Oahu in all.

Caldwell's plan to repave about 1,500 miles of bad road on Oahu calls for many of the failed roads in those three districts to be fixed first — but not all, a Star-Advertiser analysis of city documents shows. Other findings include:

» There are 68 failed city road segments that so far aren't listed on the mayor's repaving schedule. Many of those roads are still in the design phase and will go out to bid for construction within a year, Sasa­mura said. Others are still waiting on funding. But the city anticipates it will be able to fix all of those roads under Caldwell's five-year plan as long as it's fully funded, Sasa­mura added.

» In 2013 about 89 failed road segments are scheduled so far to be repaved in Council Districts 5 and 6, which run from Kaimuki to parts of Kalihi.

» Only eight of District 4's failed road segments are scheduled so far for repaving in 2013. Another 41 failed road segments in that district, which runs from Hawaii Kai to Ala Moana Beach Park, won't be repaved until 2015-2017, under the plan.

» Some of the communities coping with the most lousy (failed) roads include Kaimuki, St. Louis Heights, Moiliili, McCully, Makiki, Liliha and Kalihi.

» The other six districts had significantly fewer city roads with a failing grade. Nonetheless, they had plenty of roads in "poor," "very poor" and "serious" shape.

Caldwell has been quick to point out the paving schedule is based on what he calls "rough justice," where some of the worst roads might have to wait for streets that aren't as badly damaged but more heavily traveled.

In 2012, Honolulu established a policy for road standards, which is another thing the city never had before. It demands that no city roads deteriorate below what's considered "fair" on the PCI index.

"Road repaving is not real sexy. People want to talk about new things, new buildings and new parks — redesigning Waikiki," Caldwell said last month, announcing his five-year repaving goals. "But it's the everyday things … that a city is about. It's about sewage, it's about water, garbage pickup, and it's about road repaving. People feel the difference when you address the need."


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