‘Carmageddon’: Peak-hour roadwork without prior notice causes major traffic snarl

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Workers pick up cones after the first day of restriping Thursday on Highway 130 between Shower Drive and Kaloli Drive in Keaau. The striping work will take place Mondays through Fridays between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Lack of public notice about a lane-striping project that started during rush hour Thursday morning on Highway 130 between Shower Drive and Kaloli Drive in Hawaiian Paradise Park caused a massive traffic snarl that frustrated and angered Hilo-bound motorists.

Kurt De La Cruz, a senior adviser at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, got caught in the lengthy traffic jam caused by the shutdown of a dedicated right-turn lane from Shower Drive onto Highway 130. He described the resulting mess as “Carmageddon.”

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“HPP is Hilo’s bedroom community,” said De La Cruz. “There’s thousands of people coming out of HPP each morning because the employment sector, pretty much, is in Hilo. So a lot of parents like me bring their kids to school in Hilo. There’s geographical exceptions (to DOE school districts) because our work is in Hilo. … It’s a huge subdivision. I don’t think most of us realize how big it is. Most of us, we make our way towards Shower. … We don’t go to main Highway 130 because 130’s usually packed already. So we snake our way through various arteries in the park to Shower.

“Now Shower, because of the road construction, has a stoplight. And that stoplight had a right turn that could be made at any given time. And that was like a valve, man. It let that really long line of cars continually keep going. And today, it was shut off. … But based on today, tomorrow, any other day while we get through those three lanes, we’ve got to have some kind of traffic management — a police officer, whatever. Because right now, that long line of cars is waiting for the light to turn green, because you’ve got one lane to turn now. So you’ll let six to 10 cars through and another 200 cars are still in line. It was crazy. It was insane.”

The state Department of Transportation sent a statement at 11:59 a.m. about the re-striping work, which started Thursday and is scheduled for Mondays through Fridays between 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., weather permitting. The striping will add a permanent Pahoa-bound lane to Keaau-Pahoa Road between Shower Drive and Kaloli Drive and is expected to be completed in late August, DOT said.

The DOT’s statement said that during the striping work, the dedicated right turn from Shower Drive onto northbound Keaau-Pahoa Road will be allowed during the morning rush with cones to separate the turning traffic from oncoming northbound traffic on Keaau-Pahoa Road.

“This measure is being taken to mitigate the congestion experienced on the first day of re-striping; however, after the striping is complete, the dedicated right turn will be removed to encourage drivers to use the main road instead of the privately-owned back roads,” the statement said. “After the striping is complete, DOT will begin operating the morning northbound contraflow to provide two northbound lanes from Kaloli Drive to Shower Drive.

“Setup of the contraflow will be similar to the contraflow tested in April and May of 2018 that showed a time savings of 15 minutes for northbound motorists.”

Northbound contraflow traffic is expected to start on Aug. 26. The DOT said additional information on the contraflow will be released “as the striping project progresses.”

Another motorist, Robyn Halbridge, said it took her an hour and 45 minutes to drive two blocks. She said senior citizens were forced to wait an inordinately long time for a Hele On bus in the sun and called the traffic situation “unsafe and hazardous.”

“No notice, no officer, no digital signage,” Halbridge said. “It was absolute chaos.”

Shelly Kunishige, a DOT spokeswoman, said the department apologizes “for not providing prior notice to the community of the work on Keaau-Pahoa Road.”

“Notification in the form of the 11:59 a.m. news release was sent as soon as communications staff confirmed the details of the work, including the changes prompted by this morning’s traffic,” Kunishige said. “We were previously trying to schedule the work prior to the beginning of public school, but failing that, we have scheduled to finish the work before UH-Hilo goes into session on Aug. 26.

“The original plan for the re-striping included night work, but the contractor has not been able to secure the special duty officers needed to ensure safety. If that changes we will switch to night work.”

Kunishige said the department asks for “the community’s patience as we work to add the Pahoa-bound lane and the necessary infrastructure for the Keaau-bound contraflow.”

De La Cruz said he talked to a DOT engineer and thinks the work, when completed, will be beneficial in the long run.

“I think they grossly underestimated the importance of that Shower Drive valve. And I look forward to the improvements coming up,” De La Cruz said. “I think it could’ve been fine with proper notification. Signage, planning, police — all those things, you know. So when I called the state and I left a couple messages, I tried to be very mindful, you know. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know how you process this work … .’

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“But man, today was a bad day.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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