Ed Sniffen, the deputy director of the state Department of Transportation’s Highways Division, has had a lot on his mind lately: coastal highways crumbling from erosion, rocks falling on the Pali Highway, jaywalkers crossing Kamehameha Highway at Laniakea Beach to look at turtles.
Shoreline erosion and sea level rise are big problems. Climate scientists predict the sea will rise at least 3 feet by the year 2100. And erosion threatens coastal highways, most critically on Oahu and Maui. Last month, a portion of Kamehameha Highway at Hauula fell into the ocean, requiring short-term repairs.
But Sniffen, who oversees improvements and maintenance of about 2,500 lane miles of state highways, contends with other things too, including repairing heavily used roadways as quickly and with as little disruption as possible.
“We cannot do everything that the public wants, but what we can do, we want to do more efficiently to make sure we can get the improvements on the ground sooner rather than later,” Sniffen said.
DOT has introduced new, longer-lasting paving materials like stone matrix asphalt, and has begun using precast concrete panels (PCCP) instead of the slower method of pouring concrete in place. Sniffen said DOT also has streamlined its procurement processes, using open-ended contracts rather than bidding each job separately.
Sniffen, 48, was born and raised in Aiea, and attended public schools before his mother prodded him into entering Kamehameha Schools in the ninth grade.
“She made me,” he laughed.
Sniffen earned his civil engineering degree at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. Since then, his career has taken him in and out of public service. He started out with private engineering firms in Portland, Ore., and Honolulu; joined the DOT Highways Division as an engineer and administrator from 2007-2011; had short stints with Kamehameha Schools and Sandwich Isles Communications, and worked as executive assistant to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whom he got to know when Caldwell was a state legislator.
He rejoined DOT in 2015 and commutes to work from Aiea, where he lives with his wife and three sons. And whether he’s driving or not, he pays attention to the roads.
“A lot of times when I’m not working, my wife will drive,” Sniffen said, “because she knows I’m looking at stuff along the way.”
Question: Five years ago, the feds criticized the state Highways Division for being slow to use federal funds, to the tune of an $820 million backlog. What’s the status today?
Answer: At the end of federal fiscal year 2019, the unexpended federal obligation balance was $443,834,771, down from a record high of $940 million in 2010. HDOT has improved and streamlined project delivery in order to bring the unexpended balance (“pipeline”) down. Due to this demonstrated ability, HDOT received an additional $71 million obligation limitation in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Examples of projects that have benefitted were the H-1 shoulder work and PCCP (precast concrete panels) rehabilitation between Waimalu and Halawa, and the Kuhio Highway short-term improvements (on Kauai) that will be awarded shortly. Another thing that helped with bringing the pipeline down was the focus on preservation and maintenance projects such as repaving existing roads. These projects are quicker to award and construct as they are within our jurisdiction.
Q: What road projects are HDOT’s highest priority in the near term?
A: High-priority projects include the Keaau-Pahoa Road intersection improvements at Ainaloa Boulevard (on Hawaii island); a realignment of (Maui’s) Honoapiilani Highway in the Olowalu area (identified as Mopua in our coast highway protection plan); congestion improvements to the H-1 eastbound between Waikele and Halawa; and the Kuhio Highway short-term improvements.
Q: What will be done about the Laniakea (Turtle Beach) traffic problem, and how soon will relief come?
A: We’re in the process of doing the shoreline evaluation now and expect it to be completed in June. … If we are not able to immediately address the safety concerns with the uncontrolled crossings at Laniakea Beach, then we will move ahead with the small realignment that could be completed in late 2022.
Q: What does the future hold for coastal roads?
A: Looking at the sea-level rise modeling in the Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, we cannot continue to keep our threatened corridors accessible through armoring or other maintenance options. Our Coastal Highway Program Report looks at various adaptation recommendations, but these are conversations we need to be having with agencies responsible for designating land use and those with the ability to make policies affecting people living along the coasts.
We have to make those determinations in the next five to 10 years, while our roadways are still protected. The first step we have to take is understanding what the future of land use is actually going to be. The roadway going through Hauula and Kaaawa is there, and the belt system that we have is there, because we’re servicing the communities that live next to the ocean. If that road is inundated by 2100, what makes me think that the houses will not be? And if the houses won’t be there, do we actually need a road in that area?
I’m not presupposing that they are or they aren’t. But those are the questions that we have to ask ourselves now, to make sure that we’re making the most efficient use of our funding and our resources now.
Q: What new materials are being introduced by HDOT to improve maintenance of roadways?
A: Right now we are looking at possible application of surface treatments to improve the smoothness of roads where the base course is still good. One possibility is using the high-friction surface treatment that we’ve applied for safety on the Pali Highway at the hairpin turn, and on Kamehameha Highway by Waiahole. Looking at our pavement mix has been big.
Q: How much gas-tax revenue is the state losing due to electric vehicles?
A: The $0.16 state share of the gas tax brings in approximately 30% of our state highways revenues. Although electric vehicles currently make up less than 1% of registered vehicles in Hawaii, we need to start researching potential revenue streams now.
Q: What do you think of red-light cameras?
A: Red-light running is a significant cause of crashes, deaths and injuries at signalized intersections. Statewide, between 2011 and 2016, there have been 1,616 crashes as a result of red light and other traffic signal violations. Hawaii is one of 26 states that does not use automated traffic enforcement on its public roads. Federal data suggest that automated traffic enforcement can reduce costs of enforcement, lessen the danger to law enforcement officers and increase the perception of drivers that he or she will be caught.
Q: Will rail transit be beneficial to the state’s highway system?
A: At this time, rail will not be a transportation solution. … When I talk to people about rail and ask them, “Do you support it?” They say yes. When I ask them, “Are you going to ride it?” They say no, but other people will. So if you talk to the general public, those who have their vehicles will continue to use them.
Now the cool thing is: My kids, my senior in high school, he’d rather not drive. My younger sons are deciding that they don’t even want to get their licenses until later. And that’s indicative of that age group across the nation.
So definitely, right now, I cannot see rail, if it opened tomorrow, making a big dent in congestion relief. But in the future, I can see it tremendously assisting transportation alternatives. When rail comes through, it’s going to enable the TOD (transit-oriented development) stations to be built up. So we can start densifying the urban core … without having to add more traffic because we’re building more in Ewa or Mililani or in the country.
Q: What about more highways?
A: We know we cannot build ourselves out of congestion. We’ve tried it in the past; it doesn’t work. We also know that the land in Hawaii is such a precious resource, not just from a cost perspective, but it’s also high in value from an environmental perspective. We sell Hawaii daily to tourists. For us to take more of the undeveloped land and develop it with roadways, I think it’s taking away a really precious resource. So for us, we try to stay away from building new roads. We try to focus on making sure that we can make congestion relief a priority, and capacity increases within the lanes that we have already.