State orders updated traffic assessment for Pepeekeo power plant

  • CLAUDIA ROHR

  • Jade Butay

Honua Ola Bioenergy will have to update a traffic assessment submitted for the project in March 2011 before the power plant under construction in Pepeekeo can deliver logs to its facility.

A letter dated Dec. 19 to Honua Ola President Warren Lee from state Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay said a traffic assessment submitted almost nine years ago, “which recommended no improvements to the access intersection of Hawaii Belt Road … and Kaupakuea Homestead Road and Sugar Mill Road,” was found to be acceptable at that time.

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DOT, however, is now requesting the submission of an updated traffic assessment “due to the passage of time.”

According to Butay’s letter, the department’s concerns about “background traffic growth, possible changes to the source of the logs needed, which were previously understood to be from more northern locations and may now include locations from the south, justify the update to help ensure the safe operation of the access intersection.”

The letter added the assessment “shall include recommendations for improvements.”

Butay’s letter to Lee follows a Nov. 4 letter addressed to Butay, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Transportation Committee, from Donald F. Rudny, a licensed professional engineer who lives in Pepeekeo, site of the former Hilo Coast Processing Co. power plant. Honua Ola is in the process of converting from burning coal to burning wood.

Rudny’s letter warned of “a serious public safety issue at the intersection of Sugar Mill Road and Highway 19.”

“It is anticipated that heavy trucks will transport the harvested logs at the rate of five to six per hour over a twelve hour period daily,” Rudny wrote. “That will mean at least 120 truck movements per day through that intersection with half being left hand turns. More trucks removing ash from the operation will also be turning at this intersection. Presently, the intersection has no left turn lanes or acceleration/deceleration lanes installed. Highway 19 has only one lane in each direction, and the present speed limit is 45 mph. Southbound traffic has a speed limit of 55 mph just before the intersection. the cross road is controlled with stop signs. Sugar Mill Road is a private drive maintained by the local homeowners’ association. My understanding is the subject plant has an easement to utilize it for their operation.”

Rudny, who said he has “considerable experience in heavy truck safety and accident reconstruction,” added his review and assessment of the 2011 traffic study “led me to the conclusion that once the plant becomes operational, this intersection will become unreasonably dangerous without improvements that include, at a minimum, left turn lanes and acceleration/deceleration lanes on Highway 19. Failure to install left turn lanes will likely result in vehicles driving (onto) the shoulder to pass turning trucks that may take significant time in waiting for a sufficient gap to turn. … I believe insufficient sight distance may cause interference with opposing traffic as time required by a fully loaded semi may exceed eight seconds. In that case, traffic signals would need to be installed.”

In requesting a new study, Rudny said he was “not certain how these traffic issues were ignored in the approval process, but they apparently were.”

Lee declined comment Thursday, saying he hadn’t seen or read the letter.

Claudia Rohr, a Hilo bed-and-breakfast owner who has an active civil lawsuit challenging several permits issued to the project, said — in addition to her concerns about the environmental impacts the plant would have on the surrounding air and water — she’s concerned about traffic safety on Highway 19 and Sugar Mill Road should the 30-megawatt powerplant become operational. Rohr added she requested to see documentation of the approval of the traffic assessment, but was stonewalled by officials for years.

“I kept asking for information, and all they told me is they were going to ask for an update, they were going to ask for an update, they were going to ask for an update. They kept saying that. Well, now they’re doing this,” Rohr said.

Rohr, who said she doesn’t think an updated traffic assessment will derail the controversial biomass plant, pointed to several recently built residential developments that have increased traffic on Highway 19. She said the most important issue, however, is an upcoming contested case hearing before the Public Utilities Commission concerning the amended power purchase agreement between Hawaii Electric Light Co. and Honua Ola, formerly called Hu Honua Bioenergy.

Under the agreement, HELCO would purchase energy from Honua Ola at an “all-in cost” of 22.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to Honua Ola.

The hearing, which hasn’t yet been scheduled, was mandated by a five-judge panel of the state Supreme Court, which on May 10 unanimously overturned the PUC’s 2017 approval of the amended purchase agreement.

The court, in a 66-page opinion written by Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, ruled “the PUC erred by failing to explicitly consider the reduction of (greenhouse gas emissions) in approving the amended power purchase agreement, as required by statute … .”

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The high court also ruled the PUC denied due process to Life of the Land, a nonprofit environmental group which sought party status to address the environmental impacts of the wood-burning power plant, “to protect its interest in a clean and healthful environment by restricting its participation in the proceeding.”

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

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