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Waipio road restrictions proposed

Hawaii County Council members on Thursday will discuss a bill that could eventually restrict pedestrian access on Waipio Valley Road for safety reasons.

The bill, which is on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit, would add nearly the entirety of Waipio Valley Road to the list of county roads closed to pedestrian traffic.

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In particular, the stretch of the road closed to pedestrians would begin from the Waipio Valley lookout and include the descent into the valley, where the extremely steep grade and narrow, winding road surface make the road hazardous for traffic.

“Before COVID, there were over 300 rental cars going down that road every day, and those are conservative numbers,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who introduced the bill. “And on top of that, we’d get 150-200 hikers every day, and that’s a recipe for a major disaster on a dangerous road like that.”

Poindexter said it is only through good luck that there have not been any recent fatalities on the road, particularly considering how some pedestrians behave.

“People are walking all over the road,” she said. “I’ve seen some walkers climb over the guardrail to avoid cars. … Other walkers were walking along the left side to avoid walking along the cliff, but if a car’s brakes fail, where are they going to go?”

While Poindexter said recent accidents on the road have involved vehicles partially slipping off the edge of the road or running into the cliff face, Gary Matsuo, owner of tour company Waipio Valley Shuttle, said incidents where pedestrians slip and injure themselves are all too common.

Matsuo and Poindexter pointed out that the large number of pedestrians and low number of restroom facilities in the area contribute to public health hazards. Matsuo said visitors relieving themselves wherever was convenient has led to health inquiries in the past.

And while tourism to the valley is down as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Matsuo pointed out that it is unrealistic to expect many pedestrians to wear masks on the road, considering the intensity of the climb.

“Personally, I think the rental car traffic is worse than the pedestrians,” Matsuo said, but added that he is “in support of the bill.”

Poindexter said the pedestrian issue is one facet of many compounding issues surrounding Waipio Valley that need to be addressed. While the valley is popular among tourists, the road also is the primary access point for residents of the valley, for whom increased traffic on the road can be a dangerous hindrance.

Poindexter also said the safety of the road itself needs to be considered.

“The road was originally built for mules,” she said. “It wasn’t meant for vehicles, like today.”

On the other hand, Poindexter said, the road remains a county road and is therefore publicly accessible — at least for now.

Poindexter said the bill is one aspect of a greater discussion about the management of Waipio Valley that has taken place between herself and various community organizations during the past several years. Those discussions, she said, hinted at possible directions for the road’s future, including the possibility of the Waipio community taking the road private.

“All options are on the table,” she said.

No matter which option is chosen, Poindexter will not be in office when it happens — her successor will be elected today and will take office in December. Because of this, Poindexter said the introduction of the bill is simply a way to expand the scope of discussion to more community and council members.

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While Poindexter said the bill will eventually move before the full council if other council members vote in support of it, she intends to postpone action on it in order to allow her successor time to get up to speed on the issue.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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