(A version of this story appears in the Nov. 4, 2009 edition of the Big Island Weekly.)
By Tiffany Edwards Hunt
The darkening sky highlights the stream of headlights that stretch along Highway 130 from the Humane Society to the Keaâ€™au High School football stadium.Â Itâ€™s the evening of Oct. 21 in Puna at the bottleneck, and the Keaâ€™au=Pahoa Advisory Group is on a field trip with Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, SSFM consultants, and roundabout consultantÂ Michael Wallwork, of the Australia-based Alternate Street Designs.
Wallwork, set to offer state officials and consultants a recommendation on how roundabouts can aid key intersections along Highway 130, gets a good look of the problem before heading to the Keaâ€™au Elementary School cafeteria to make a presentation.
While hundreds are lined up in their vehicles on the highway a stoneâ€™s throw away, just a few regulars are at the meting in which Wallwork provides the KPAG group, transportation officials, consultants details on how roundabouts can aid in traffic flow and efficiency.â€œChange is slow, even for us, maybe even especially for us, but we are considering (roundabouts),â€ Jiro Sumada, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation tells the small crowd when introducing Wallwork as the guest speaker.
Roundabouts are â€œan island you have to drive around,â€ which can be big or small, â€œplain or pretty,â€ with unusual shapes and landscaping, containing trees, clocks, even statues, Wallwork describes. He notes there are â€œless conflict points,â€ or areas susceptible to a car crash, illustrating with a diagram how there are 32 conflict points at an intersection and only eight on a roundabout.
â€œThere are no left-turn or t-bone crashes, which are typical for an intersection,â€ Wallwork says.
Many towns and cities worldwide are replacing signalized intersections with roundabouts â€” like Victoria, Aus., which replaced all its intersection with roundabouts, and La Jolla, Calif., which installed five roundabouts to lower speeds and facilitate bicyclists and pedestrians and â€œturned an ugly road into a pretty road,â€ Wallwork says.
â€œYour presentation tonight is really educating me on roundabouts,â€ KPAG member Manny Mattos tells Wallwork.Â He isnâ€™t the only one in the group that finds Wallworkâ€™s presentation favoring roundabouts convincing.
KPAG members Hunter Bishop, the mayorâ€™s public information officer, and Neil Erickson, a Hilo architect, were both persuaded.
Erickson tells Wallwork he came to the KPAG group as a cycling advocate and noted Highway 130 is a highway in which people â€œdonâ€™t want to slow down.â€
â€œOne of the biggest reasons why people donâ€™t like roundabouts is that you have to slow down,â€ Wallwork reasons.Â â€œConsider an intersection where you have to stop.Â With a roundabout, itâ€™s only for a few seconds, and you feel a lot better because youâ€™re moving, rather than staying static at a stop light.â€
â€œDuring your presentation, I sketched a whole bunch for Downtown Hilo,â€ Erickson says, adding, â€œI like the idea for in town.â€
â€œI like the idea of roundabouts,â€ Bishop says after the meeting. â€œThey may be solutions for some intersections.Â Itâ€™s definitely the solution for Old Government Road and Kahakai Boulevard.â€
KPAG and DOTâ€™s effort to improve 9.5 miles of Highway 130, otherwise known as Keaâ€™au-Pahoa Road, comes as a result of a complaint made to the Federal Highways Administration by a group of Puna residents who felt tax dollars were not being spent equitably nor were solutions being sought from the people affected by the road improvements, according to Ginny Aste, who was among the group and a co-author of the 1993 Puna Community Development Plan that highlight Punaâ€™s traffic problems.
Sumada says a little over $1.7 million is being spent on the Keaâ€™au-Pahoa Road Improvements Project, including:
â€” $250,000 for â€œcontext sensitive solution,â€ which means the KPAG group working with SSFM consultants
â€”Â Â Â Â $203,000 for â€œalternatives analysisâ€
â€”Â Â Â Â Â $180,000 for a topographic survey
â€”Â Â Â Â $160,000 for preliminary engineering
â€”Â Â Â Â $451,780 for technical studies such as traffic, air, noise, cultural, botany, hydrology, and social impacts
â€”Â Â Â Â $250,000 for the draft environmental assessment and associated public hearings
â€”Â Â Â Â $217,220 for the final environmental assessment
â€œIt doesnâ€™t seem like theyâ€™re moving fast enough,â€ Bishop says of DOT officials and consultants working for them.Â He has been involved with the KPAG group since February.Â KPAG has held eight meetings since last fall, according to Sumada.
â€œI hate to say that, but when youâ€™re talking about safety and traffic in your neighborhood, Bishop says, conceding, â€œTheyâ€™re not ignoring us, we got their attention.Â Theyâ€™re more aware of the problem than they ever have been.Â I look forward to the county and state working together.Â I would encourage more cooperation between the state and county.â€
Indeed, talking with KPAG members Oct. 21, Sumada alludes to the fact that the county and state are not the only ones not communicating as well as they could be..Â Sumada tells the KPAG group that the Engineering Division has twice asked the Traffic Division to participate in KPAG meetings on Highway 130, and both times did not get a response.
Meanwhile, while there is some information about the Keaâ€™au-Pahoa Road Improvements Project posted on the internet at keaau-pahoa.com, the greater Puna community appears to be unaware that an improvement project is underway and taking public input.
At least two Puna women arenâ€™t aware of the KPAG group, the Oct. 21 bus ride and meeting in Keaâ€™au, or the $1.7 million to come up with an improvement plan.
â€œI think they should put in roundabouts,â€ says stay-at-home mom Emi Leatherman Hunt, before learning the Oct. 21 KPAG meeting she missed included a roundabout presentation.Â â€œThey are so much easier and I think the cost of putting them in would be a lot less than making a frontage road and trying to put in signal lights.Â It keeps the traffic flowing. Theyâ€™ve existed for centuries in Europe, and they work fabulously.â€
â€œThey should have thought about infrastructure before HPP blew up, because a majority of the traffic morning and night is coming from HPP,â€ says Felicia Frazer-Harms, an Aloha Coast Realtor, upon learning about DOTâ€™s improvement project and the Oct. 21 meeting she missed.
She notes DOTâ€™s first priority should be a roundabout or signal light at â€œthe Malama Market intersection,â€ where Pahoa Village Road and Highway 130 intersect.
The second priority should be mitigating the bottleneck at the Highway 130 and Keaâ€™au=Pahoa Road intersection, Frazer-Harms suggests, noting a reversible lane should be implemented on weekdays to eliminate the bottleneck. â€œSomeone needs to go out there with the orange cones every morning and every nightâ€ to change the traffic pattern on that road like they do for Waianuenue Avenue in Hilo on school days, she says.
Frazer-Harms also suggests DOT â€œextend the double lane from Shower Drive to the Makuâ€™u entrance of HPPâ€ and â€œmake more right-hand and left-hand turn lanes or make existing ones longer, so you can ease on and off the highway easier.â€
Bishop notes that there are â€œsimpler solutions than lights at every cornerâ€ and that it is not feasible to put in signal lights at every intersection along the highway.
Erickson says roundabouts-versus-signalization is a minor detail in the improvement project. KPAG, DOT and SSFM consultants need to set in stone which intersections will have a signal light or roundabout, and proceed with getting the environmental assessment completed.
â€œMoney is earmarked for this project,â€ Erickson says.Â â€œIf we donâ€™t spend it, we lose it.Â I donâ€™t think state Highways would give a damn.â€
â€œTime is of the essence,â€ says Bishop. â€œAccidents happen everyday.â€