East Hawaii News

County Council postpones decision on funding bill for Puna Makai Alternate Route Study

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Traffic congestion on Highway 130 in Puna has been a long-standing issue. (Photo from Puna state Rep. Greggor Ilagan’s website)

The Puna District on the Big Island has seen an explosion in population growth during the past couple of decades, growing from about 31,000 people in 2000 to nearly 52,000 in 2020, according to census data.

And, it’s expected to top 75,000 residents within the next 6 years.

The population growth has led to grueling and grinding traffic congestion becoming the norm on Highway 130 — the only state highway connecting lower Puna to Hilo — especially on weekdays during the hours when people travel to and from school or work.

Traffic can come to a complete standstill in some places on the highway that goes through or passes nearby communities including Keaʻau, Orchidland Estates, ʻĀinaloa, Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Beaches, Nānāwale Estates, Pāhoa, Kalapana and Leilani Estates.

It only gets worse in the 3 to 4 miles between the outskirts of Hilo and Keaʻau, often referred to as the Panaʻewa Stretch, before and after Highway 130 intersects with Highway 11 in Keaʻau.


“We all end up on Panaʻewa Stretch, no matter what route you take, and that’s everyone coming from Kaʻū, Volcano, Pāhoa, Mountain View — we all end up at the Shipman intersection together,” Hawai’i County Councilman Matt Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder, who represents portions of Puna, said during the Council’s meeting Dec. 20. “That happens on a daily basis. … Puna is one district. We all use one road to get in and out of Hilo.”

It’s been an ongoing need to find a solution to alleviate the traffic congestion — while also improving access for emergency vehicles headed to crash scenes in Puna as well as providing another way out when disaster strikes.

Screenshot from Google Maps.

A bill currently before the Hawai‘i County Council is aimed at starting the process by having the Hawai’i County Department of Public Works do a Puna Makai Alternate Route Study to find possible alternate routes into Puna below Highway 130 .

To pay for the study, Bill 107 would accept $1 million in state funds, which Puna state Rep. Greggor Ilagan was able to get allocated in 2021 as a line item in the state budget, and use another $500,000 from County coffers.

Public input from communities and stakeholders that could be impacted by the construction of a new road would be gathered throughout the study process. The public again would be engaged once all of the necessary data is collected and the best viable options for an alternate route are determined.


Public Works Director Steve Pause said it would take about 18 to 24 months from the day the funds become available to complete the study.

There is no infrastructure work planned at this time. Bill 107 only puts funds into the County budget for the study.

Since Day 1, however, the measure has been down a rocky road and met with backlash.

It was moved out of the council’s Finance Committee with a favorable recommendation. Its first reading initially failed to pass during the Dec. 20 council meeting before winning approval to move forward only after being brought back to the table for reconsideration.

The council was set to consider the bill’s second and final reading during its regular meeting Wednesday, but it was postponed to the Jan. 24 meeting.


It needs two-thirds of Council members to vote in favor to be adopted.

Members of the Hawaiian homestead communities of Panaʻewa and Keaukaha and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands are concerned about possible impacts of a new road, and don’t want any alternate routes going through Hawaiian homelands.

Vehicles drive on Keaʻau-Pāhoa Road, also known as Highway 130, in September 2022 near the intersection with Highway 11 in Keaʻau. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Panaʻewa and Keaukaha residents say the communities have already been burdened with the Hilo International Airport, Hilo Landfill and transfer station, a raceway park and traffic speeding down Railroad Avenue.

“We do not need a freeway from Pāhoa to Hilo through our community or Hawaiian Home Lands trust lands,” Angie Alonzo said in written testimony against Bill 107.

Other alternate route suggestions have been offered that would not impact any Hawaiian homestead communities, including using Macadamia Nut Road south of Hilo and extending Kupulau Road from Hilo to Keaʻau Access Road.

A majority of council members understand and agree with the community’s concerns. Efforts are being made to make sure the study excludes those Hawaiian home lands areas.

While appreciative of Ilagan’s efforts and the state for appropriating the money, several Council members also have reservations about the bill, including the study’s scope not being clearly defined and it being too narrow. They instead want the study to look at a wider area for alternate routes, including above Highway 130.

“All of Puna needs access and alternate routes,” Kanealiʻi-Kleinfelder said on Wednesday. “It’s problematic to limit the scope.”

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz on Wednesday suggested using money from the county’s fund balance and an addendum to the Puna Makai Alternate Route Study to expand the scope.

“I mean it just makes sense if we are spending all of this time looking for an alternate route, let’s look at all potential options for Puna,” Kierkiewicz said. “Any sort of alternate route will indeed benefit all constituents of the region. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the mauka (mountainside) or makai (oceanside) of Highway 130. All residents are going to benefit from this.”

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who represents the Panaʻewa and Keaukaha areas, said no community throughout the country has ever solved traffic problems by building another road. When she looks at the money for the study, she sees it as an opportunity to explore other alternatives.

“What I don’t see on the table is other alternatives such as cumulative studies about the need for commercial development within Puna that would not require those constituencies to drive into Hilo, where they’re getting their commercial services, their health care services,” Lee Loy said.

She suggested looking at not only an alternative route but other options as a whole and what those impacts look like, including other agencies that have it within their power and ability to make adjustments, even augmenting their schedules, so a new road might not be needed.

Lee Loy is interested in hearing from other Puna communities as well about where an alternative route could be.

Community members who testified Wednesday at the Council meeting also agreed all viable options should be explored.

Lee Loy proposed an amendment to Bill 107 on Wednesday to make sure Hawaiian homelands were not included in the study. Despite most council members supporting its intent, however, she withdrew it so the bill itself could be held in anticipation of more information and additional work on a possible accompanying resolution could be done.

The unanimous decision to postpone the measure came after County Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance expressed concern about amending an appropriations bill to include policy statement.

She said it would be awkward to have a budget item that goes into the line item with conditions attached.

Kierkiewicz agreed that it would be good to pause and draft a resolution that defines the guardrails and scope of the study that can accompany the budget bill.

Kohala Councilwoman Cindy Evans added that waiting a couple of weeks would allow the council to make sure it’s not jeopardizing the release of the state funding. It also sends a strong message to the community that it was heard loud and clear.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at nathan@bigislandnow.com
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