Speed limit reduced on Kalaniana‘ole Street in Hilo to protect nēnē — and pedestrians
August 8, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
Endangered Hawaiian geese are returning to the coastline of Keaukaha in Hilo as a result of successful efforts to restore and preserve the wetlands and fishponds that provide critical habitat.
But with the good news comes some bad. The nēnē, Hawaiʻi’s state bird, now have to deal with traffic, and speeding vehicles, as they again make the area their home. Several of the federally and state protect birds have not survived the treacherous crossing of a nearly 2-mile straightaway stretch of Kalaniana‘ole Street.
In an effort to curb those encounters, the Hawai‘i County Council last week adopted a bill to lower the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph on the stretch that runs from the entrance of James Kealoha Beach Park to Kings Landing. The amended county ordinance takes effect immediately, with new signage expected to be installed soon.
The roadway runs along the Keaukaha coastline and fronts many of the fishponds and wetlands being rehabilitated. It also provides the main access to the area, which includes several popular beaches, for the thousands who live, work and play there.
Using banding records from state and federal partners, the nonprofit Nēnē Research and Conservation has been able to identify 30 nēnē that call Keaukaha home and are not seen anywhere else. Those birds are nesting, foraging and raising families in the area, sometimes close to the roadway.
According to Jordan Lerma, co-founder of the conservation nonprofit, nine Hawaiian geese have been struck and killed by vehicles since 2021 along that stretch of the roadway.
That includes a 20-year-old female the state spent $18,000 to relocate from Kaua‘i to the Big Island. The goose was hit by a car on March 4 and died.
“It’s a very dangerous road for nēnē that cross the road quite frequently,” Kumiko Mattison, co-founder of the ʻĀina Hoʻōla Initiative, said during a committee meeting. Her nonprofit is one of the groups working to restore about 60 acres of wetlands and fishponds in Keaukaha.
The birds are especially vulnerable during nesting periods as they lose their flight feathers and cannot fly, forcing them to cross the road to get to grassy feeding areas. The birds also are becoming accustomed to getting handouts from beachgoers. Lerma said many of the collisions have been recorded around nesting sites.
The speed limit measure, introduced by Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy who represents the area, was requested by community members and organizations trying to prevent nēnē deaths.
Girl Scout Troop 26 of Hilo, which helps Mattison’s organization with its restoration efforts, even started an online petition, urging the County to take steps to make the road safer for nēnē.
Lerma and others met with Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and other County officials to discuss the situation and concluded that lowering the speed limit in that stretch of Kalaniana‘ole Street would be a good place to start.
Studies in Seattle and Boston by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that a seemingly small change from 30 to 25 mph resulted in a significant reduction in the odds of a collision with a vehicle happening and also increased compliance with the posted speed limit,” Lerma said.
To get an overall picture of how people were driving on that stretch of Kalaniana‘ole, Lerma’s nonprofit deployed custom-built speed logging devices to measure how fast people were driving over an 11-day period in May.
Of the 5,000 cars that drove past the sensors, nearly 81% were not following the posted speed limit and one vehicle was clocked going 86 mph during the day.
“It’s scary to think this is what’s happening,” Lerma said.
The measures being put in place also wonʻt just help nēnē stay safe.
Many people visit the parks, beaches, restaurants and other areas along the roadway, including Lerma and his 2-year-old daughter, people working to restore habitat in the area, and keiki going to and from school and using nearby outdoor classrooms.
Only one of the 11 days did at least 50% of drivers follow the posted speed limi. It was the day a mobile speed sign had been set up.
Higher speeds make crashes more likely by reducing reaction time of the driver. They also increase the distance it takes to stop and the energy produced, raising the odds of injury or worse.
Nēnē often pop up from an embankment along the roadway, giving drivers little time to react.
“Lowering the speed limit isn’t the sole solution to this problem,” Lerma said. “It’s an important part of the solution, but we need to all work together to find solutions like this in order to keep our roads safer.”
Steve Pause, director of the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works, supports the speed reduction and said in July that his department was looking into other speed calming options for that stretch of Kalaniana‘ole Street. The options could include installing guardrails, vertical delineators to keep vehicles from crossing over into the roadway’s shoulder, speed radar signs and even speed tables or speed humps.
“At the end of the day, I think we’ve had very good, productive discussions,” he told Council members during another committee meeting.
Lee Loy said Public Works has established areas where speed tables, vertical delineators and guardrails could be installed. The department also is looking into other visual prompts such as striping and/or painting on the road to alert drivers to slow down. Additional wildlife crossing signs to accompany the new speed limit signs also are likely.
Lee Loy said all of the speed calming measures are hoped to be in place no later than the end of this year.