East Hawaii News

County Council drives ahead with new funding bill for study to identify alternate routes in Puna

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A new bill that would fund a study to identify possible alternate routes into and out of the Big Island’s Puna District is driving forward.

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

Bill 131 would provide $2 million for the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works to complete a Puna Alternate Routes Study. The measure, introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, would accept $1 million from the state for the study and appropriate another $1 million from county coffers.

The Hawai‘i County Council on Tuesday during a meeting of its Finance Committee voted 8-0, with Kaʻū Councilwoman Michelle Galimba absent, to give the measure a favorable recommendation and move it on for further consideration during the Feb. 21 council meeting.

The goal of the study and any future infrastructure, which is not a part of the proposed funding measure, is to find where other roadways could be placed in the district to help alleviate the longstanding issue of traffic congestion. A new road would also provide another evacuation route in the event of a natural disaster and emergency response.

Another anticipated benefit would include better access to health care services, education, employment and recreation, enhancing the quality of life for the more than 50,000 people who call Puna home. That number is expected to top 75,000 residents within the next decade.

The study also would offer the opportunity to look at other amenities connected to possible alternate routes such as bike lanes, multi-purpose paths and rapid bus transit. It also would help nail down where residents of Puna are traveling, which will assist with where alternate routes could be placed, among other benefits.


Bill 131 is similar to a previous funding measure the council rejected in January.

Bill 107 would have appropriated $1.5 million in state and county funds for a study to only look at potential alternate routes below Highway 130, the only state highway in and out of lower Puna.

That measure ran into several roadblocks, including from members of the Hawaiian homesteads of Pana‘ewa and Keaukaha in Hilo and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, who don’t want any possible new roads going through those communities.

Council members also had issues with the limited scope of the study proposed by what several called a flawed bill.

“[Bill 107] felt really unsettling and there was just no way to kind of fix it, so it just needed to die and provide us a clean slate, a new opportunity, to do things the right way,” said Kierkiewicz, adding the Puna community has asked for another road for decades. “They just want a study. They want options.”


She said it is “nightmarish” to think about what could happen if Puna was hit by another natural disaster and people are again forced to evacuate with their route options still limited. Residents who have experienced that are still traumatized, Kierkiewicz added, and they want to prevent that situation from happening again.

“Some folks have said, ‘Yeah, you know what? Maybe people shouldn’t live in Puna,'” she said. “We choose to live there. We want to live there. But we should not be punished for lack of good planning by local government decades ago.”

Once the funding is in place, Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works Director Steve Pause said it would likely take about 3 to 4 months to have a professional consultant in place and details of the study’s scope hashed out. It would then take another 12 to 18 months, which include additional engagement with the public and stakeholders before the study is complete.

To make sure a future study does not include parcels under the jurisdiction of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and takes into account the council’s wishes to expand the scope to include all of Puna, Bill 131 was amended to include a section incorporating the policy directive outlined in Resolution 416, which the council approved last month.

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


“Puna is a whole,” said Finance Committee Chairman and Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder. “We all deal with the same issues, it’s the same thing. Maybe a little bit different, but we all get the same roads. We have to see it as a whole, so I really appreciate where we’re at, right now, with this.”

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder listed several attempts that included funding and stretch back more than 20 years to identify alternate routes in Puna, saying they only highlight the importance of the longstanding issue.

“We have measured 10 times and never cut,” he said. “If you come from private industry and you never cut that pipe, then I’m gonna kick you off my crew because you just wasted my entire day while I waited for you to cut a pipe and come back to me and put it in.”

He also used the funding history, whether used or not, to caution the council as it attempts to appropriate $2 million for another study. He doesn’t know the outcome of those studies he listed, but there’s still no alternate route in Puna.

Kierkiewicz wants the best possible study and the best possible recommendations because the Puna community has been more than patient, “and they deserve the very best.”

“We’re just asking for money for a professional study, and my colleague from upper Puna went through a very long legislative study of attempts to get a study done,” Kierkiewicz said. “Public Works, I’m gonna be your best friend, checking in all the time on progress made for this study because the ball’s gonna be in your court.”

In other business Tuesday, the Finance Committee postponed until its Feb. 20 meeting discussion on Bill 104, introduced by Hilo Councilwoman Jenn Kagiwada and Galimba, which would establish a long-term rental tax classification for properties occupied under a lease for at least 12 consecutive months and under a signed lease for 6 consecutive months or more to the same tenant.

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 [email protected]
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