It can take as long as an hour for North Shore drivers to travel just 2 miles in front of Laniakea Beach, where a 10-year-old boy from California was hit by a vehicle Aug. 1 while crossing Kamehameha Highway to get to a popular spot to watch sea turtles.
The simmering frustration over the years-long traffic problem — blamed on tourists jaywalking across the two-lane highway to get to the beach — has now boiled over with people complaining about everything from who’s to blame to concerns that too many visitors are flooding the North Shore.
Tourism officials are offering to help fund short- and medium-term solutions — if any can be found — because of fears of a community backlash against visitors.
“We’re willing to assist any which way we can,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “The last thing we want to see is places with major interest and appeal to tourists and residents who say, ‘No tourists allowed.’ We have to work with government and figure out how we can manage this better.”
But there are no proposed solutions that are simple or cheap.
Laniakea Beach — sometimes referred to as Turtle Beach — is not an official beach park. It’s an oceanside, open space with no bathrooms, parking lots.
It’s too dangerous to park on the makai side of Kamehameha Highway, so drivers instead pull off to the mauka side and sometimes sprint in front of traffic to get to the shoreline.
Battle over barriers
The state Department of Transportation insists that 1,000 feet of concrete barriers installed in December 2013 on the mauka side of Kamehameha Highway prevented people from parking and jaywalking.
But the barriers had to come down in 2015 after a successful lawsuit by the Save Laniakea Coalition and five other plaintiffs.
“We know the barriers worked when they were in place,” said Ed Sniffen, the DOT’s deputy director of highways. “If the barriers were still in place, that kid never would have gotten hit. … We’ve been pushing to replace the barriers for the last four years because we know the barriers are the best short-term safety methodology we have up there.”
Witnesses at the time said the boy, from San Jose, Calif., flew 10 to 15 feet in the air after he was struck around 2:30 p.m., then was taken in serious condition to The Queen’s Medical Center. The unidentified boy returned home with his parents two days later.
Attorney Bill Saunders represented four professional surfers — including a former North Shore lifeguard — and an amateur surfer who relies on a wheelchair in their lawsuit against the state to get the barriers removed.
Saunders said he realizes that the lawsuit has now led to complaints about traffic that is changing how — and when — people drive around the North Shore.
“My son lives up there,” Saunders said. “My son curses me every day because of the traffic.”
But the bigger issue was that the barriers essentially prevented access to Laniakea Beach, especially for plaintiff Bill Martin, a North Shore business owner and amateur surfer who uses a wheelchair and needs to park close by, Saunders said.
Even though the barriers represented a de facto closing of Laniakea Beach, Saunders said his clients want to find a safe compromise.
Saunders said he proposed that the DOT reinstall the barriers but leave openings on both ends to help divert pedestrian traffic — as long as the DOT also provides about 50 parking spots and tourist vans are barred.
“I sent a settlement offer saying, ‘Let’s fix it,’” Saunders said. “They’re just not interested in our solution. In the meantime that boy gets hit, which sends everybody into ‘Let’s act’ mode. We’re saying you’ve got to find another solution that leaves parking available for ocean recreation.”
Sniffen said it’s not simple for the state to provide parking on the mauka side of Kamehameha Highway because the land belongs to either the city or Kamehameha Schools.
Even if the DOT could gain access to the land, an environmental study would take at least a couple of years to complete, Sniffen said.
“That doesn’t help anything in the short term,” he said.
A proposal that’s popular with many North Shore residents calls for DOT to acquire mauka lands and build a 1-mile, horseshoe-shaped Kamehameha Highway bypass that would reserve the existing stretch of Kamehameha Highway in front of Laniakea Beach strictly for beach access.
But that proposal is estimated to cost $65 million and also would require two years of environmental study, Sniffen said.
“Of course, we don’t have that money in our budget,” he said. “The longer realignment of $65 million will never get done, so I’m moving off of that.”
The “smallest proposal” would have DOT acquire 15 feet of mauka lands for some parking spots, Sniffen said.
Because an environmental study also would be required, Sniffen said “that means no safety improvements for two years.”
People who want to see turtles without having to dodge traffic can always visit Alii Beach Park in Haleiwa, which has parking, Sniffen said.
Before the boy was hit, Chris Tatum, CEO for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told city and state officials in July that HTA is willing to spend $7 million to $8 million to help fund short- to medium-term solutions, such as the installation of traffic lights, crosswalks or to hire crossing guards or off-duty Honolulu police officers in front of Laniakea Beach, according to HTA spokeswoman Marisa Yamane.
“Whatever the residents want, HTA will see if we have the funds,” said Yamane, who lives nearby in Waialua.
Turning on tourists
Tourism officials want to find a solution fast because “there’s a real problem of people turning on tourists on the North Shore,” said state Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua).
Sniffen has a different version of HTA’s offer.
“I don’t believe that they offered a funding amount,” Sniffen said. “I heard them offer potentially putting up crossing guards at the site. How efficient would that would be? I’m not sure.”
For now, Sniffen said, there is no consensus on how to make the stretch of Kamehameha Highway safer for pedestrians.
As for discussions with attorney Saunders and his clients, “we’re still at an impasse,” Sniffen said. “We would like the barriers up immediately. The plaintiffs would like us to put the barriers up with a parking lot (with) open ends. But any work will require a two-year environmental assessment.”
In the meantime, Sniffen said the ongoing traffic congestion is changing the way people move around both ends of the North Shore.
“Some people just stay home on the weekends,” he said. “People have to change when they go to market, when they go to the movies. Definitely, I hear a lot of frustration from the community.”
Riviere hears complaints about traffic jams “everywhere I go, every day.”
Even when he was paddleboarding Tuesday, he said a friend in the water said, ‘Hey, Gil, what do you think, Laniakea? When’s it going to be fixed?’”
Riviere is a founding member of a community task force created in 2011 to look at shoreline erosion and Kamehameha Highway issues in front of Laniakea Beach and Chun’s Reef.
He insisted that DOT officials have never been serious about finding long-term solutions to address pedestrian jaywalkers in front of Laniakea.
The task force held just four meetings and is essentially dormant.
At two of the meetings, DOT officials spent most of the time explaining why various proposals were “impossible,” Riviere said.
“This whole thing’s so sad,” Riviere said. “All roads literally and figuratively come back to DOT. DOT won’t do anything.”
Now drivers’ resentment is spilling out into the open, including a rally held Sunday calling for the concrete barriers to be reinstalled.
“People are getting angry and they’re getting angry at everybody,” Riviere said. “It’s not the tourists’ fault. It’s the side effect of the DOT never solving the problem.”