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County unveils plans to repair Waipiʻo Valley Road and make it safe from rockfalls

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Sherise Kana’e-Kāne, with the Hawaiʻi County Department of Public Works, explains improvements that will be made to Waipiʻo Valley Road during a community meeting Oct. 26 at Honokaʻa Gym. Photo Credit: Megan Moseley

Eight months after Mayor Mitch Roth declared an emergency proclamation to limit access to the steep and narrow Waipio Valley Road that was deemed dangerous, Hawai’i County unveiled its plans to make it safe.

At a community meeting Wednesday at Honoka’a Gym, Steve Pause, director of the county’s Department of Public Works, told the crowd of valley residents, taro farmers and surfers that trimming and other maintenance work would begin on the 1.4-mile road in November.

That work would be followed by Phase 1 of a three-phase major road repairs and mitigation project that would begin in Spring 2023 and take about three years to complete, Pause said.

The maintenance work in November will include cutting and clearing trees on the makai side of the road.

During the maintenance portion in November, the road will be closed two days a week for a period of about four weeks. Pause said the County will work with the community to determine what times and days work best for everyone.

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Currently, potholes, a deteriorated road surface, overgrown trees, rockslides and drainage issues are impacting the main throughway to the valley and the black sand beach in the north section of the Big Island.

Pause said his office is not taking the project lightly. In addition to fixing the technical issues of the road, the County also will repave the road, increase pullouts, update signage, improve drainage and improve line of sight challenges on the winding road that hugs the side of the valley.

“It’s our desire to make these improvements efficiently with minimal impact to the community,” Pause said. 

The overall project was originally stated to cost around $6 million, but Pause said that number is “not going to be enough.”

Waipiʻo Valley Road is in desperate need of repair and mitigation work to prevent rock slides. File Photo: Megan Moseley

Pause said the $6 million estimate is from a previous administration to fund the project and with the new design, the repairs are expected to be more costly. 

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For now, the County has budgeted $5.8 million from a capital improvement fund for the road repairs. He said additional money to complete the project will need to be allocated.

The plan was created from the geotechnical report and mitigation assessment done by Haley & Aldrich, the environmental and geotechnical consulting company hired by the county.

During the meeting, Pause, Engineering Division Chief Keone Thompson of the public works department and two representatives from Haley & Aldrich — JoDee Taylor, a senior associate geotechnical engineer, and Chris Eddy, an engineering geologist, explained the findings and the mitigation that is needed. They also explained the challenges that lay ahead. 

Eddy explained how he personally mapped every hazard he found on the road during a walkthrough, citing 120 to 125 hazards, most of which are visible in plain sight. 

“It’s these crazy trees that are right there and those roots hanging out the slopeside just waiting to come down,” he said. “Then, moving further down the road, there’s these big rocks that are about to come down.

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Eddy passed around photos of old landslides. 

This sign at the top of the Waipio Valley Road only hints at the steepness of the valley access. At places, the slope reportedly reaches a white-knuckle 39 degrees. File Photo: Brian Baldwin.

“These cause a big hazard to the road and if they come down they will come down hard and fast,” he said. 

Phase 1 will include construction from the ranger station to a “hairpin turn” in the road. Contractors will focus on taking down trees, overhanging roots and soil along that portion of the road. 

Archeological assessment and natural resource assessment will be conducted before Phase 1 can begin. The work is expected to take about 4 to 6 weeks.

The work also will include ditch improvements to keep water off the road. 

The County now is working on a design to put together a bid package and “get that going as soon as possible.”

Plans for the more complex phases 2 & 3 will be pursued during Phase 1. These phases include applying mesh and bolts to the side of the mountain, similar to a project on Kauai’s Ko Road, and adding rockwall fences.

Pause said “a lot more design” is required for these phases.

“It’s not easy to just lay mesh down,” he said. “We have to think about where we are going to put it and how. And that’s a little more time. The design work will start concurrently with Phase 1.”

The repair work will not be easy. The County currently is working on other extensive road projects, including designing a two lane roundabout intersection in Waikoloa, the repaving of Waikoloa road from top to bottom and the Kalanianaole Highway Improvements project that is in its finishing steps. 

“From a degree of difficulty, this project wins hands down,” Pause said of Waipiʻo Valley Road.

Pause said the department plans to continue to communicate with the community on the roadwork. 

“It’s a way to let you know what we’re doing but also a way to hear what’s on your mind,” he said. 

That included one request at the meeting for sacred rocks to not be removed. Pause said that will be a priority during the project.

People attending a community meeting on Oct. 26 learned about Hawaiʻi County’s plans to make Waipi’o Valley Road safe. Photo Credit: Megan Moseley

While some surfers, taro farmers and residents wanted to discuss the controversy over who can have access to the county road during Wednesday’s meeting, the county’s focus was on the repair and maintenance plans.

“We are only here to speak about the road improvements, OK? Any other questions regarding
access will be done at the Mayor’s next meeting,” said Sherise Kana’e-Kāne, Information and Education Specialist for the county Department of Public Works.

Mayor Roth was not at this meeting. Numerous questions about access into the valley were written on cards and will be delivered to him.

There were also other unanswered questions by community members, including problems with right of way, traffic lights and road signs, and the issue of whether visitors will still need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to enter the valley once the road work is done. 

District 1 County Council Member Heather Kimball told the crowd there is a need to take a deeper look at the issues impacting the valley. 

“I hope to be continuing to work with the community to address the needs in the long term,” she said.

Megan Moseley
Megan Moseley is a multi-platform journalist based in Hawaiʻi. Her experience ranges from long and short-form reporting to print, digital, radio and television news coverage. In Hawaiʻi, she's worked for local media outlets and has covered a wide range of topics including local and state politics, environmental affairs, Native Hawaiian issues, travel, tourism and education. She covers the West for Restaurant Hospitality.

She's a 2010 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism and specializations in Geology and History. She's currently working on her master's degree from New York University in journalism and is focused on conflict resolution and peace practices in indigenous cultures in the Pacific.

Find her @meganmoseleyjournalist or at www.meganmoseley.com.
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