(BIVN) – The recovery Puna’s lava-inundated Highway 132 is still a hot topic at the Hawaiʻi County Council, where the local elected officials are pressing the administration to find a way to quickly execute what everyone agrees is a top priority.
“Yesterday, the mayor gave an update for state legislative funds and he mentioned roadwork,” said Puna councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, speaking during the April 24 council meeting held in Kealakehe. “The question that we had was: why is it going to cost between $37 and $40 million dollars to cut a road for Highway 132?”
“I wasn’t clear if this was temporary access or if this was paved with curb, gutter, sidewalk, underground utilities,” Kierkiewicz said. “So I’m just hoping you can help us better understand – and I bring this up because, you know, the mayor indicated that some of the recovery funds would be used for infrastructure. We agree there is a clear need for roads in the area. So, hoping you can help us understand what this road is supposed to look like, and why the cost estimate is so high?”
Public Works Director David Yamamoto sat in Hilo via videoconference, but it was his deputy director (and director at the time of the eruption) Allan Simeon, that did the talking.
“What is permitted of us to do is to put back the road to the previous function,” Simeon said. “We’re looking at 12-foot lanes, one in each direction, and also 10-foot wide shoulders.”
Simeon then detailed the sort of grading and paving that would need to be done, which prompted Kierkiewicz to ask what prevents public works from simply cutting a temporary road?
“As a condition of receipt of federal funding, we have to follow the Federal Highways / (Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation) requirements,” Simeon answered, adding that the County will need to do NEPA, or National Environmental Policy Act permitting, as well as NPDES, or National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, and SMA, or Special Management Area, permitting.
Simeon said the feds will cover 100 hundred percent of the cost of the temporary road work as long as it is completed by October 4th or 5th. “Thereafter, it’s non participation. That means they know they’re not going to participate,” he said. “That’s why our goal is to finish the temporary road by that date.”
“Why couldn’t we use some of the money that’s been given to us from the governor already?” Kierkiewicz asked. “I’m looking at this breakdown of priorities of the budget summary that was presented by director [Diane] Ley and Roy Takemoto, where they allocate $5.7 million out of the governor’s $10 to get people home by restoring access. So, I’m assuming if it’s gonna be a road like was created for getting access back to Pohoʻiki, it’s not gonna cost the county more than a million dollars to restore access similar to that sort of road. I’m willing to bite the bullet and just spend that million if that’s what it’s gonna take to cut a road, and not wait for the hundred percent reimbursement.”
Simeon said the County is currently waiting for the grading permit process to be finalized by the State Historic Preservation Division, and “also waiting for the private owners to give us the right of entry that we have sent maybe a few weeks ago. We need all those to basically put the package together and be able to get the project started, once the funding is available.”
Puna councilman Matt Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder wanted to know if “we can or cannot go ahead and just pave a road out there?”
Puna Geothermal Venture, for example, opened their “Pioneer Road” to residents living in the lava-locked kipuka on April 1, 2019.
“With the community reaching out to us to help them for the last few months, and with PGV’s ability to cut the road in five days, and our inability to create any kind of access,” Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder said, “this would be a big win for Public Works and for us and for the people who live there all at once. So the sooner the better.”
Simeon clarified that “when PGV was able to start the project, they were under the [emergency] proclamations, so some of the permits that normally is required were suspended at that time.”
“Could we amend our code to create a temporary emergency road standard that we could use to justify cutting a road right now?” Kierkiewicz asked.
“I don’t think it’s gonna make a difference unless you change the codes’ grading requirements,” Simeon answered, “or you extend the proclamation for emergency.”
“If this requirement for getting a grading / grubbing permit hinges on the county code, I propose we change the code,” said Hilo councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.
Lee Loy added that the administration should “think about policy changes that this body could actually do by way of amendments to the code, and we could craft it in a manner that we could honestly be more expedient than State Historic Preservation Division. This body has seen burial plans take five years.”
“I hear the community,” Lee Loy said. “We’re marching up on one year of this event. There’s always another way, I really believe that.”
“I think we have a chance here,” said Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder, “instead of spending $10 million dollars and waiting until October, we could spend under a million dollars and cut a road in a very short period of time, being a little bit creative but following the rules.”