East Hawaii News

County Council rejects funding bill for Puna Makai Alternate Route Study on second and final reading

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There will be no study — at least in the near future — to identify possible alternate routes below Highway 130 in Puna.

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

The Hawai‘i County Council during its regular session Wednesday voted 6-2, with Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder absent, to reject Bill 107 on second and final reading. The funding measure needed two-thirds of Council members to approve it to be adopted.

The bill would have accepted and added into the County budget $1 million from the state, which Puna state Rep. Greggor Ilagan was able to get allocated as a line item in the state budget in 2021, and another $500,000 from County coffers for the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works to do a Puna Makai Alternate Route Study.

Ilagan was disappointed with the Council’s decision, saying Puna legislators fought for more than 30 years to secure funding and conduct a study to establish the best route for the growing community.

“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,” he said. “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 Council could consider a different budget amendment that might include the funds and address concerns members had with the original bill, said Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball: “I expect that is what will happen, but it’s going to take some work to do correctly.”


The study would have looked at where other roads could be built to help alleviate the long-standing issue of traffic congestion on the only state highway connecting lower Puna with Hilo, which intersects with Highway 11 in Kea‘au, while also improving emergency vehicle access and providing an additional evacuation route when disaster strikes.

There was no infrastructure work planned or included in the measure.

It’s been pointed out by Council members during other meetings throughout the past two months when Bill 107 was discussed that studies have been done before and data collected for decades; the need for an alternate route is not in doubt.

But Bill 107 has been met with opposition since Day 1 from many members of the Hawaiian homesteads of Pana‘ewa and Keaukaha in Hilo, expressing concern about the impacts a new road going through their communities would have.

They say they have experienced injustice by their lands having to bear the burden of hosting the Hilo International Airport, Hilo Landfill and transfer station and a raceway park. They also had concerns about traffic already speeding along Railroad Avenue and other issues.

Screenshot from Google Maps.

The state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands also conveyed to the Hawai‘i Legislature and the Hawai‘i County Council that it doesn’t want any alternate routes going through Hawaiian homelands.

That backlash continued Wednesday, with the first nearly 2 and 1/2 hours of the Council meeting dominated by public testimony again lodged against the measure.

The Council heard those concerns loud and clear, with a majority agreeing.

Several members also had issues with the scope of the proposed study, saying confining it to below Highway 130 isn’t enough and areas above the roadway also need to be considered for alternate routes. They suggested using additional county funding to expand the study.

There was even some thought about looking at other options to alleviate traffic woes, including cumulative studies about the economic development of Puna and how more services could be provided within the district so residents wouldn’t have to drive elsewhere for work, health care, groceries and other necessities.


Department of Public Works Director Steve Pause agreed again during Wednesday’s meeting, saying it only makes sense to look at all the options available while doing a study.

There were several attempts to save Bill 107 — and the state funding attached — as it went through the legislative process, including a resolution introduced Wednesday by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and neighboring Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who represents Pana‘ewa and Keaukaha, that was meant as a companion measure to the bill.

Resolution 416, which the Council approved 8-0, again with Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder absent, stipulates that parcels under the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands should not be considered as part of the Puna Makai Alternate Route Study and the route should not connect to the Pana‘ewa and Keaukaha communities.

It also urges the mayor and Public Works director to not just fulfill the scope of the work outlined by the state legislature but allocate supplemental funds to broaden the study’s scope to examine potential alternate roadways in communities directly mauka (mountainside) of the highway, including ʻĀinaloa and Orchidland.

Furthermore, the resolution urges the mayor and director of Public Works to consistently engage with affected communities throughout the study process, including during design, implementation and evaluation.

Lee Loy said a similar situation happened in 2016 when the Council took up legislation to appropriate funds to site a composting facility right behind Pana‘ewa. She authored a resolution, which passed, urging the County’s administration then to not put the facility next to Hawaiian homelands and it ultimately was not placed there.

Council Vice Chairman Holeka Inaba also introduced an amendment to Bill 107 on Wednesday that was identical to one Lee Loy proposed but later withdrew during the Council’s Jan. 10 meeting that would have made sure Hawaiian homelands were not included in the study.

Inaba also later withdrew his amendment after Hawai‘i County Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance again expressed concern about the legality of amending a budget line item with a policy statement, including due process and separation of powers issues.

Council members, mayors, department directors, state legislators and politicians come and go. What the Council was searching for Wednesday and throughout the debate about Bill 107 was what Lee Loy called an “ironclad determination” to ensure any future Puna alternate route study would not include Hawaiian homelands.

Resolution 416, just as all resolutions, is nonbinding, and despite assurances from Pause and Hawai‘i County Managing Director Deanna Sako that Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth’s administration would take the measure into account in its decisions and that they, too, are listening to the community, there are no concrete guarantees future decision-makers would follow the same guardrails.

Kierkiewicz said the state fumbled on the Puna Makai Alternate Route Study and the Council was left to pick up the ball and get it across the goal line.

After about an hour and a half of discussion Wednesday, not having some kind of solid guarantee that Council concerns — and the community’s — would be taken into consideration going forward and several members expressing the need for the state to revisit the issue ultimately led to Bill 107’s demise.

Ilagan said the Council contending that the Legislature should fix the bill for various reasons displays a lack of awareness regarding the immense challenges in securing funding for such an important community project.

“The [Hawaiʻi 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 Lāhainā wildfire, which both serve as examples that highlight the urgent need for alternative routes in our communities because of the effects of climate change,” Ilagan said.

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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