Pohoiki Road work awaits FEMA approval

  • Photo by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Pohoiki Road, which led to the Pohoiki boat ramp, is blocked by lava and is restricted. The ramp closed shortly after Kilauea volcano began erupting in May 2018 and eventually became landlocked by a black sand and cobblestone beach.

  • County of Hawaii photo Lava inundated Pohoiki Road in lower Puna in 2018.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified what the FEMA funds can be used for, according to a representative of the county’s Lava Recovery Task Force. The county plans to apply the funding to restore Pohoiki Road; however, the funds also can be used for alternative projects in Puna if it’s determined an impacted public road shouldn’t be recovered. Restoration of other roads is being assessed as part of the recovery planning process. Assessments of potential alternative projects would occur after decisions have been made about restoring public roads that were inundated by lava. The Tribune-Herald regrets the error.

Mayor Harry Kim said Thursday the county likely will receive approval soon from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repave approximately 2.5 miles of Pohoiki Road inundated during the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

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The road, which runs from Highway 132 in Puna at Lava Tree State Monument just outside Pahoa to Highway 137 at Isaac Hale Beach Park in Pohoiki, was identified as the top-priority project for $61 million in FEMA funding, which also will be used for other public infrastructure restoration projects, yet unidentified, according to a representative of the county’s Lava Recovery Task Force.

“Within two to three weeks, we hope to get FEMA approval because the initial proposal had to be adjusted,” Kim said. “Part of the original plan was to also fix Leilani Avenue, because it’s a county road. But that wasn’t possible, because it goes through the hottest part of the eruption.”

Kim said the ground beneath Leilani Avenue is still too hot for reconstruction work to be done, a circumstance encountered last year at the beginning of the restoration of Highway 132, which was funded by the Federal Highways Administration.

“The hold-up is with the modified project, which is to proceed with just the Pohoiki Road. As soon as we get an OK from FEMA, it’s a go,” Kim said. “Because the whole area was destroyed, there are no reference points. And surveying is what’s taking a good part of the time, as to what is the county’s right of way and what is private property.”

The FEMA funds are provided on a reimbursement basis after the project is completed, and their share is 75%. Kim said he’s already received state money for the 25% remainder on the FEMA-funded projects.

According to Kim, the cost of the project was originally estimated to be “in the $30 million range,” but will likely be adjusted since Leilani Avenue is no longer included.

Kim said because of the emergency nature of the project, the county doesn’t need to submit a request for proposal or to solicit sealed bids, and will use what he described as an “informal bidding process.”

“It’s a little complicated because it’s not just one bid. They bid it out on different (tasks), such as rough grade, asphalt, etc. All bids are open by the county,” Kim said. “We’re trying to make it a better road now that we don’t have trees and other stuff to worry about. And that involves land acquisition and those things … .”

Department of Public Works spokeswoman Denise Laitinen said in an email that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency gives the county “an initial 18 months from the start of the event to complete the project.” She added up to two 18-month extensions can be granted “due to justifiable reasons/circumstances.”

According to Laitinen, 10 right-of-entry agreements from property owners along Pohoiki Road still need to be submitted to the county, but work can proceed while the county pursues those agreements.

Pohoiki Road is in the district of County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who said the progress is good news for her constituents.

“I was hoping we could move on Pohoiki Road and Lighthouse Road right after 132 was restored, so I’m glad that they’re moving forward on it,” Kierkiewicz said. “You know, we finally have the funds obligated by FEMA. (Department of Public Works) has been working hard to secure the remaining right-of-entry from property owners in the area.

“I’m totally supportive of this. The state Legislature … appropriated $1.5 million for restoration of the (Pohoiki) boat ramp. It’s key to have the road to get to Pohoiki.”

A Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman confirmed the Senate Ways and Means Committee passed a supplemental capital improvement budget Wednesday that includes $1.5 million for the boat ramp, which is a state-owned ramp but is accessed through Isaac Hale Beach Park.

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The budget measure needs to go to the full senate for a vote, then to a conference committee and another full vote from both the House and Senate before being sent to Ige for approval.

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

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