LIHUE — When Michael Ching heard that one lane of Kuhio Highway near the Hanalei Bridge would be closed, 24 hours a day, for the next four to five months, he wasn’t happy.
There was no way to put a positive spin on what this could mean for Hanalei businesses.
“It’s going to be horrible,” said Ching, manager and owner of Ching Young Village Shopping Center.
The parking lot of the center, usually packed with vehicles at this time of the year, was about 30 percent empty Thursday afternoon, he said during a phone interview with TGI.
Fewer people than normal walked in and out of the retail shops, and restaurants had many open tables.
The lane closure that started Saturday, Ching said, “is already taking a toll. Definitely.”
So, the North Shore town already hammered by the flooding in April 2018 that damaged stores and homes, still slowly but surely recovering, is about to take another punch in its economic gut that could leave some down and out.
“This is not helping,” Ching said.
Here’s the problem.
The Hanalei-bound lane of the Kuhio Highway at mile marker 1 was closed Saturday in response to a rock slide following heavy rains. Since then, traffic has been limited to one lane as the Hawaii Department of Transportation carries out emergency slope stabilization work on the hill leading to Hanalei Bridge.
Work on the slope Sunday included removal of a large tree that had been cracked by the falling rocks and rock scaling. It was hoped the slope stabilization would be finished Monday.
But following a Wednesday assessment of the slope adjacent to Kuhio Highway at mile marker 1, optimism for a quick reopening of two lanes was dashed.
HDOT said Thursday the Lihue bound lane of the highway will remain closed as crews work to stabilize the upper and lower slopes.
The closure, though, is not for just a few days. It’s for several months. For 24 hours a day.
That means alternating traffic control — which means long delays and long lines of cars, trucks and SUVs.
That will affect not just tourists coming and going, but residents who live and work on the North Shore.
“The Lihue bound lane of Kuhio Highway will remain closed for the duration of the slope stabilization, which is expected to take between four to five months to complete,” the release said.
The plan for the slope stabilization includes scaling, soil nail installation, and Tecco mesh and shotcrete reinforcement.
Traffic will be allowed in both directions with alternating traffic control except for when rock scaling is scheduled on the upper slope.
The delays could be even longer, some days, because during rock scaling, crews will temporarily stop traffic for 30-45 minutes as they knock loose material down and clean the road.
Then motorists will be directed through the closure one direction at a time.
Rock scaling operations will not take place during the lower slope work.
“Please be advised that the highway in this location will be limited to one lane 24 hours a day until the stabilization is completed for the safety of passing motorists,” the release said.
The HDOT said the public is asked to avoid the area if possible and to treat the traffic control personnel with courtesy.
“We are aware of scheduled events in the area including the HCRA State Championship Race in August and will coordinate access and traffic control with the county and other stakeholders,” HDOT’s release said.
Mark Perriello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, said the impact on Hanalei business “will be significant.”
Reducing traffic to one lane on Kuhio Highway for nearly half a year will greatly reduce the number of visitors who frequent retail stores and restaurants on the North Shore.
Perriello said while the chamber supports businesses in Hanalei and will do all it can to help, it would be hard to encourage people to go there if it meant sitting in traffic for an hour or more.
“It’s a really tough situation,” he said.
He said all businesses in Hanalei should be prepared for interruptions and fewer guests, and should record customer foot traffic and sales on a daily basis. That way, they can document losses which are likely due to the highway repairs and seek government assistance.
“There’s definitely the potential to lose businesses up there,” Perriello said.
He said perhaps something could be done at the government level to help resolve the situation.
“I don’t think there is anything that can be done in terms of helping the businesses maintain their customer base during this time,” he said. “That’s going to be really, really difficult.”
“There are no quick answers,” he added. “They’re going to have to get creative.”
Ching suggested one solution could be to do night work, though he added that would present safety issues.
“We need to sort of brainstorm this together,” he said, “see where windows of opportunity are and maybe let both lanes flow two to three times a day.”
He said he couldn’t blame people for not wanting to drive to Hanalei as the situation stands.
He said since the lane closure began over the weekend, traffic has backed up to the shopping center from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On the other side of the bridge, it backs up to Princeville.
One Hanalei employee went to pick up some freight Thursday morning, which meant passing through the work zone, and couldn’t return until the afternoon due to the traffic jam.
Ching said businesses that rely on tourists, like gift shops and restaurants, are suffering.
“They’re the ones taking more of a hit,” he said.
While Kuhio Highway beyond Hanalei has been closed to general traffic since the April 2018 floods, at least visitors could get to Hanalei to shop and eat. But the lane closure is compounding an already difficult situation.
Ching is hoping to “work something out” with government agencies.
“Let’s put everybody in the room and come up with a mutual solution,” he said.
Until then, challenges await Hanalei businesses.
And that’s putting it mildly.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be worse,” Ching said.
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.