(BIVN) – The Hawaiʻi County Council on Wednesday voted down a bill that would have funded a study to build a new highway between Hilo and Puna, after an outcry from the Hawaiian homestead community.
Most residents agree that an alternate route is needed to alleviate the traffic congestion on the highways that feed into Hilo. The lack of an alternate route also presents danger in times of emergency.
Bill 107 would have initiated the Puna Makai Alternate Route Study, using $500,000 in County funds, and $1 million from the State, to “identify an alternate route to relieve traffic congestion and increase evacuation capacity, if needed”.
The bill was introduced by Puna councilmember Matt Kānealiʻi-Kleinfelder, and passed first reading on December 20, 2023, before it was postponed during an earlier council meeting in January. It was defeated by a 6-2 vote.
Another Resolution, 416-24, introduced by councilmembers Ashley Kierkiewicz and Sue Lee Loy, urged the administration to remove parcels under the jurisdiction of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands – in particular, Panaʻewa and Keaukaha – from consideration when studying the feasibility of a Puna Makai Alternative Route. It also requested that additional funds be provided to “broaden the scope to examine potential alternate routes in communities directly mauka of Highway 130, such as ʻĀinaloa and Orchidland.”
From Maile Luʻuwai, the president of the Keaukaha Panaʻewa Farmers Association, in opposition to Bill 107:
Our Pana‘ewa and Keaukaha sister communities have been negatively impacted to serve the needs of other communities. DHHL beneficiaries were forced out of their homes and relocated so DHHL could transfer Trust Lands to the state for the Hilo Airport. The DHHL community that remained endures the noise and pollution from the airport ranway. The Hilo dump was located adjacent to our community for 50 years and is still there. The electric plant and county sewage facilities are in our community. Industrial facilities line the corridor to Keaukaha. We are impacted by the noise from the Raceway Park located behind our homes. Every day, we deal with traffic and speeding cars using Railroad Avenue as a bypass road.
Our community has been marginalized and like other marginalized minority communities, our community is treated as an area where traffic is diverted, roads and airports are built, waste is stored and dumped, industrial warehouses and facilities are concentrated, and our natural resources are polluted. Enough is enough.
While we fully support the need to find a safe alternative route between Puna and Hilo for Puna residents, this route cannot be through DHHL Trust Lands.
We appreciate your consideration of this request and ask that the Keaukaha Pana‘ewa Farmers Association be included in future meetings regarding this matter.
Kali Watson, the chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, also submitted testimony in opposition.
Homestead residents felt so strongly about killing the bill that they blocked Railroad Avenue prior to the council meeting as a demonstration of their concerns.
Meanwhile, the council vote drew the following statement from the Hawaiʻi State Representative for Puna, and former County Councilman, Greggor Ilagan:
“Today, the Hawai‘i County Council let the community of Puna down. During a meeting, they decided to kill an appropriation bill that would have funded the Department of Public Works to conduct a comprehensive study to establish what would be the best alternate route from Puna to Hilo to alleviate traffic, as well as create an alternate route to escape Puna in the case of a natural disaster, such as a sudden lava eruption.
This decision jeopardizes the release of $1 million in appropriated state funding and the county match of $500,000, signaling a lack of collaboration from the State, County Council, and community on this crucial project for our residents. Prior to this, all budgetary approvals were reviewed with the county, and the County Council was the last step in moving the funding forward.
The steps leading up to this rash decision are extremely disappointing. The County Council invoked fear within the native Hawaiian community, misleading them into believing that the road would cut through their community. This occurred despite ongoing assurances from Steve Pause, the Director of Public Works, that the study would exclude these lands.
In previous written testimony, I explained that an amendment of Bill 107, deemed unauthorized by county legal counsel, was not necessary and that based on community testimony, the only areas within the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands that could be considered in this future study were commercial areas that are already carrying the bulk of heavy traffic. Despite this, the County Council ignored Pause and me, persisting in making statements that distorted the true purpose of the study.
As the Representative for Puna, I want to note that our community is the only community in the country that is impacted by lava flows that could cause imminent danger by sudden lava flow through Kilauea’s fissure system. This could potentially block access to roads and trigger wildfires, leaving residents with limited escape options. Puna, being the last affordable place to own land in Hawaiʻi, has experienced significant population growth, expected to continue in the years to come. The impact of climate change, leading to drier conditions, adds to the vulnerability of vegetation. By instilling fear with false claims, the County Council has unnecessarily turned this collaborative effort between the state and county into a divisive situation, pitting Puna against other Hawaiians. The repercussion is that our most disadvantaged residents remain at risk of being trapped in emergencies.
The County Council contends that the State Legislature should fix the bill for various reasons, displaying a lack of awareness regarding the immense challenges in securing funding for such an important community project. They seem to overlook the fact that the funding’s passage was due to the tireless efforts of Puna Legislators who fought for over 30 years to secure funding and conduct a study to establish what the best route would be for our residents.
Reflecting on this journey is challenging, as I have tirelessly championed every aspect of ensuring the success of this study, based on the continual asks of my community. After the appropriation for this study was approved by the Legislature, the acceptance of the $1 million in state funding by the County Council was the final step before Public Works could officially start to define the scope, at which point my ongoing acknowledgment to exclude the debated areas would be officially established. Today, the Hawaiʻi Island County Council has let Puna down, especially considering the statewide impact of the 2018 lava flow that devastated hundreds of homes in Puna, and most recently the Lahaina wildfire, which both serve as examples that highlight the urgent need for alternative routes in our communities, due to the effects of climate change.
Over half a decade since the 2018 eruption, we face uncertainties in reallocating funds, particularly with the impact of the Maui wildfires altering our budget projections. As we navigate recovery efforts, a cautious approach will be taken in determining the upcoming state budget. It is clear to note that challenges lie ahead in redirecting funding for the Puna Makai Alternate Route project, due to the actions taken today by the Hawaiʻi County Council.”