The traffic jam caused by tourists crossing Kamehameha Highway to see green sea turtles basking at Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore finally may be alleviated.
Thanks to a surcharge on rental cars that was passed in the last legislative session, the state Department of Transportation now has approximately $33 million statewide for road improvements, including the realignment of that stretch of highway further inland.
“We have a funding source that’s available,” said Ed Sniffen, deputy director of the state’s Highways Division.
The quarter-mile stretch of Kamehameha Highway at Laniakea faces a double whammy of issues: the constant traffic congestion due to pedestrians crossing the two-lane highway, as well as threats from coastal erosion and sea level rise.
So the state is now committed to realigning that stretch of the highway and moving it farther inland, he said.
The question is whether to shift it over a short distance of at least 40 feet or so or to move it much farther, at about 1,000 feet or so inland, along a curved path that would make it resilient to coastal erosion in the long run. The shorter shift would cost an estimated $6 million to $10 million, he said, and the larger realignment, an estimated $35 million to $40 million.
Sniffen, who recently presented these two options to the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, prefers the latter.
“We’re looking at that corridor as a piece that’s either going to be inundated or impacted by higher wave action in the very near future,” he said. “If we move it to the larger realignment we’re proposing, we can get about 1,000 feet inland and out of the future inundation zone that we’re seeing from the (University of Hawaii) studies.”
If the state were to move the highway farther in about 40 to 50 feet, he said, it would buy another 15 to 20 years, perhaps, before it is affected by erosion.
What Sniffen proposed as a short-term solution for Laniakea’s traffic and safety issues is the installation of guardrails where the concrete barriers once were in the mauka area dirt lot across the street.
Given that there is no parking on the ocean side, a constant stream of tourists eager to see the turtles featured prominently on social media park at a dirt lot on the opposite side and randomly run across the two-lane highway.
There is no crosswalk or signal light, and Sniffen said it is not an ideal site for one.
The installation of concrete barriers in 2013 became a point of controversy in the community for years due to beach access issues. A year after they were installed, a group called the Save Laniakea Coalition, made up of surfers and residents, filed a lawsuit to remove them and won.
But Sniffen said those barriers worked at reducing the conflict between pedestrians and motorists.
After a 10-year-old boy visiting from California was struck by a car while crossing the highway at Laniakea last summer, state transportation officials renewed efforts to reinstall the barriers, saying it was confident the collision would not have happened if the barriers were in place.
“If the barriers were in place when that kid got hit, it wouldn’t have happened,” Sniffen said Thursday in an interview. “There would be no reason for that child to cross the street in that area other than to get to parking.”
The average daily traffic at Laniakea is at about 12,700 vehicles per day, according to HDOT statistics. HDOT said a study found the number of pedestrians crossing the highway after barriers were put in place dropped by about 400 during peak weekend afternoon hours.
If the state can install the guardrails as a short-term measure to improve safety, Sniffen said his preference would be to pursue the larger realignment project.
It would be a more complicated project and involve crossing into lands owned by the city and Kamehameha Schools, which has leased out parcels to ranchers. It would be a much longer process involving negotiations, and take several years longer than the smaller realignment project, which could be done in the fall of 2022.
Following further review, the larger realignment project, which was initially estimated to cost about $60 million, is now possible at about $35 million to $40 million, he said.
If installing guardrails is not an option, then Sniffen said the state would pursue the smaller project.
Both options would connect Laniakea to Chun’s Reef and provide an alternative route for motorists. The current highway, meanwhile, would become a local road to access the beach, he said.
The guardrails would be standard, he said, at about 3 feet in height, and span about 1,000 feet across in the same area as the concrete barriers — but would not be considered a development — in order to prevent people from parking at the mauka area dirt lot.
They would cost an estimated $30,000 and could be installed in as little as two to three weeks. It will be up to the state Circuit Court whether to allow them, he said, but plaintiffs in the suit are still opposed to barriers that take away parking.
“If I can put the guardrails in place, I would rather put all our resources into getting the longer realignment done,” he said. “That would be the best solution.”
Sniffen said he will know which route the state intends to take in the summer.
In a statewide report on coastal highways at high risk of erosion, Laniakea was actually ranked No. 18. The highway at Hauula, where a section collapsed early this month, prompting emergency shoreline repairs, was ranked No. 1.
State Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua) said the community has long wanted relief from the congestion but that it has to be done right. He hopes HDOT really is committed this time.
“We’ve been waiting for over 15 years, so action will speak louder than words,” he said. “We hope they’ll give us short-term relief and be serious about long-term solutions. Everyone’s just groaning for relief.”