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Hawai‘i County Council adopts funding measure for Puna Alternate Routes Study

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A decades-long journey to develop alternate roadways into and out of the Puna District on the Big Island has reached a new milepost.

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

The Hawai‘i County Council on Wednesday voted 8-0, with Kaʻū Councilwoman Michelle Galimba absent, to adopt Bill 131 by approving its second and final reading. The measure provides $2 million for the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works to complete a Puna Alternate Routes Study.

Introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, the bill funds $1 million in county money and accepts another $1 million from the state.

The goal is to determine where other routes could be placed to help alleviate the district’s longstanding issues of traffic congestion and need for another evacuation route when natural disasters strike, such as eruptions and lava flows, and better access for emergency response.

An added benefit would be more access to health care services, education, employment and recreation opportunities for the people of Puna.

No infrastructure projects have been proposed and none are included in the measure.


The study also will exclude parcels under Department of Hawaiian Home Lands jurisdiction, which was a major sticking point for members of the Keaukaha and Pana‘ewa homestead communities in Hilo and several Council members on a similar funding bill that was previously voted down.

Now that the funding is in place, it should take about 3 to 4 months for Public Works to bring a professional consultant on board and work out details of the study’s scope, which will look at all of Puna for possible alternate routes instead of just a portion of the district as proposed in the previous measure.

That funding bill would have only provided $1.5 million for a study to look at possible alternate routes makai, or oceanside, of Highway 130, the state’s only highway in and out of lower Puna, which was another roadblock for the Council.

Public Works Director Steve Pause said during a past Council meeting that it will take another 12 to 18 months, which include additional engagement with the public and stakeholders after a consultant is hired before the study is completed and any potential infrastructure projects could be proposed.

Puna has faced several challenges because of the way subdivisions were set up, Kierkiewicz told her fellow Council members Wednesday. Because of that, it’s lacking in transportation infrastructure.


“This study would provide that comprehensive examination to identify viable options,” she said.

Kierkiewicz added that any future road projects resulting from the study would not only help improve connectivity in Puna, they would enhance the quality of life for the district’s more than 50,000 residents who now call it home.

That number is expected to top 75,000 people within the next decade.

Furthermore, Kierkiewicz said the study offers the opportunity for the county to tee up additional state and federal funding for future projects.

“There are a lot of different maps and lines on paper that say where roads could go, but a professional study will really help us to identify what is actually feasible,” she said. “I think through this process, we really want to understand where are Puna going?”


Understanding where traffic is flowing will help Public Works better plan for where any future roadways should be placed and the land owners the department needs to connect with to ensure construction can move forward.

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said more importantly — without a hospital in Puna — getting residents to emergency health care services as quickly as possible is paramount to saving lives.

And regardless of the roadblock the homestead communities put up for the previous measure, they also understand the need.

“So many people from the homestead have come to me and said, ‘Sue. This study. We need it,'” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who represents Keaukaha and Pana‘ewa. “Our Native Hawaiian community will benefit, too, from this study.”

Lee Loy said it’s not only because of the family and family connections the two homesteads have down into Maku‘u but the other economic opportunities that so many people will be able to take advantage of through the study.

“The study is beautiful because it allows for the conversation,” said Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder. “It allows for community to get involved; if they don’t like where it’s being planned, if they love where it’s being planned or why they think it’s important. That’s the beauty of this.”

The Council is driving ahead with hope that the funds provided through Bill 131 and the study will finally put rubber on the road and result in infrastructure that a growing Puna desperately needs.

“I cannot stress it enough: 20 years of funding that have been applied and applied and applied and we don’t have an alternate route yet,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “The potential of this is huge for our district.”

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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