WAINIHA — Construction crews are working overtime to repair Kuhio Highway on the North Shore, and state transportation department officials are confident they will meet their goal of reopening the road past the checkpoint by the end of April.
Ed Sniffen, Hawaii Department of Transportation deputy director of the Highways Division, said Thursday he is “absolutely” confident work will be completed to allow two-lane traffic past the Waikoko checkpoint at Anae Road in Wainiha.
“Our goal is to get this thing done,” Sniffen said during an interview at the checkpoint, after checking progress at construction zones along the highway in Wainiha and Haena with several other HDOT officials Thursday afternoon.
Construction workers were working every day for a couple months when repairs began last year, only scaling back once the road was cleared, according to HDOT Kauai District Engineer Larry Dill. He said the workers are often pulling 12-hour shifts and have “been working six days a week now for several months.”
“The work that our contractors have done has been tremendous,” Sniffen said, “because they understand the commitment we’ve made to the community to get this done within a year. They’re pushing as hard as they can to get it done.”
The North Shore was devastated during the flooding on April 14 and 15, brought on by nearly 50 inches of rain.
Much of the highway was washed out, homes were destroyed, cars carried away by rising waters and property was damaged. The recovery for many in the area continues.
There was also extensive damage to Haena State Park and Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, both of which remain closed to visitors.
The convoy system between Wainiha and Waikoko will continue to operate until HDOT determines it is safe to allow access without it.
HDOT’s deadline for reopening the highway was originally set for October, a timeline that was later extended. It wasn’t until last month that HDOT set a firm goal for completing the work, estimating that “slope stabilization and roadway repairs needed to safely open Kuhio Highway past Anae Road (the Waikoko checkpoint) to two-way traffic will be substantially complete in April 2019.”
Sniffen said he has more faith in the April estimate than he had in the October deadline decided upon last summer.
“The reasons for the deadlines in the past was to make sure that we looked at the end of the year to see what problems we might encounter,” he said, explaining that previous goals were based on an incomplete understanding of the situation and had to be modified when new information came to light.
“When we started walking some of the slopes, we thought we had all the issues kind of taken care of,” he said. “When we started excavating, when we started moving stuff, and seeing more potential problems that we have to take care of, we gotta deal with it.”
“So those start pushing the deadlines out. The rains that we get, the normal storms that we get, we always gotta figure those in. And I think April is a good timeframe,” Sniffen said.
Heavy rains throughout 2018 slowed construction work, and erosion from waves on the ocean side of the highway destabilized areas near the road that had to be shored up. But Sniffen said another factor that caused the project deadline to be pushed back was “unanticipated damages that we didn’t see.”
“As we found more material that we saw was destabilized, we had to start excavating that out, too. So the scope of the project got bigger and bigger the more we excavated,” Sniffen said.
“When we started looking at the roadway, itself, we could have just said, ‘Let’s clear the landslide. Let’s clear the upper slopes, and be done with it.’ But if we did that, this project would have taken much, much longer, not just for the state side but for the county side as well,” he said.
Reopening the road earlier, Sniffen said, would have forced construction crews to work in limited space and would not have allowed for the load capacity of the North Shore’s three bridges to be increased so that heavy machinery and equipment could not reach the areas where they are needed.
“The big thing that I want to make sure everyone knows, is we could have stopped at just clearing the debris,” Sniffen said. “And the federal government could have not supported us in helping us out with the bridges.
“But these funds — the $75 million committed to this effort — is over and above the annual authority that they give us every year. That means this project comes with additional federal funds that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Although the end is in sight, the future of the North Shore remains uncertain. Erosion on the makai side of the highway poses a long-term threat to the stability of the road, a problem that, so far, is being dealt with on a patchwork basis.
“Right now we don’t know what the permanent solution is,” Sniffen said, pointing out that the problem will only be further exacerbated as sea levels continue to rise.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists in 2012 conducted a review of the research on global sea level rise projections, and concluded that the average sea levels will likely rise at least 8 inches by 2100 and could potentially rise by as much as 6.6 feet.
“If we’re looking for a sustainable location for this roadway — if we see a one-meter rise — this is probably not it,” Sniffen said.
For now, according to Sniffen, HDOT engineers and administrators are trying to delay erosion and maintain the existing infrastructure long enough to buy researchers time to develop a viable solution.