Kolekole Bridge disruption: Emergency weight limit impacts emergency responders, truckers, mass transit

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Traffic for the Kolekole Bridge is backed up to the intersection for the Honomu Transfer Station on Highway 19 on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Robert Kealoha lets a single truck onto the Kolekole Bridge on Highway 19 on Friday. Only one vehicle at a time is allowed over the bridge.

State Sen. Lorraine Inouye on Friday said the state Department of Transportation is declaring the area of Hawaii Belt Road near Kolekole Bridge a “traffic emergency zone.”

“What that means is, they can do the work in a shorter period of time,” said Inouye, vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who represents the district where the bridge is located.

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“It also allows the department to use other sources of funding” instead of depending only on DOT’s budget, she said.

Inouye thanked Gov. David Ige and DOT officials for the declaration, which she said was made because “the structural engineer … determined the structure to be unsafe due to the advanced deterioration and advanced corrosion of various steel (trusses).”

“They are currently preparing the repairs to restore the integrity of the structure,” she said.

The DOT on Wednesday said the vehicle weight limit for the bridge — which is about a quarter-mile north of the 14-mile marker of Hawaii Belt Road (Route 11) — was reduced to 4 tons. On Friday, only one car at a time was being allowed to cross the bridge.

The department originally estimated the timeline for those repairs as between three and four months, “pending availability of construction materials.”

On Friday, however, Shelly Kunishige, a department spokeswoman, said the estimate has been adjusted because of the emergency declaration.

“Following additional analysis, we’re pursuing emergency welding to support raising the weight restriction to 12 tons,” Kunishige said. “Pending availability of a contractor, we are estimating this could be completed next week.

“For the longer-term repairs, we are still forecasting three to four months pending availability of materials.”

Effects of the bridge’s weight-limit reduction already are being felt by motorists, truckers, county emergency responders and mass transit — as well as everyday commuters. On Friday, traffic control personnel allowed only one car to cross the structure at the time, causing a considerable traffic delay in both directions.

Because of the 4-ton weight limit, the county Mass Transit Agency posted a rider alert on its Hele-On Bus web page. Routes 1, between Hilo and Kona; 60, between Hilo and Waimea; and 80, between Hilo and the South Kohala resorts were affected by what it called the “abrupt closure” of the bridge.

“We’re doing a lot of scrambling, but we’re just trying to logistically trying to make sure we can get people from the east to the west and still cover certain sections of Highway 19 north and south of the bridge,” said John Andoh, the county’s interim Mass Transit administrator.

“It’s definitely going to add travel time to those who are closest to the bridge.”

Andoh advised riders to go to Mass Transit’s website at heleonbus.org “for initial details on our plans,” and to follow the Hele-On Bus on Twitter and Facebook “where we post up-to-the-minute detours and service adjustments.”

Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd said his personnel also are making adjustments.

”Having stations in town respond out to, say, Laupahoehoe to support (a firefighting effort) is no longer quite an option,” he said. “So, our secondary unit for Laupahoehoe will be coming out of Honokaa — and we also have a Paauilo volunteer station, and then we have Waimea’s fire station. And we also have (a volunteer station) out of Waimea.”

Secondary response to a fire at the Laupahoehoe Point Gym early Thursday afternoon came from Waimea instead of Hilo because of the Kolekole Bridge situation. Firefighters responding to a 1:18 p.m. alarm found police already on scene.

Neighboring residents had extinguished a small fire on the exterior stairs and floor at the plantation-era facility, which is not in use due to the COVID-19 emergency.

Todd called the fire “rather suspicious” and said it’s under investigation.

“Unfortunately, with a lot of these incidents, there’s not a lot of witnesses, and the older gyms don’t have a security system where cameras can point to anything definitive,” he added.

Ashley Nichole Turner, a 36-year-old woman with no permanent address, was arrested Thursday on Laupahoehoe Point Road, where the gym is located, and charged with fourth-degree arson. However, according to Hawaii Police Department spokeswoman Denise Laitinen, Turner is accused of allegedly starting a small brush fire on Laupahoehoe Point Road and not the gym fire.

“That fire was only 20 feet by 10 feet,” Laitinen said. “The arresting officer extinguished the brush fire before it could impact life or property.”

DOT said in a Friday evening statement it is working with Hawaii County emergency responders and would allow ambulances on the bridge. Earlier in the day, Todd said anyone north of the bridge needing ambulance transport to a hospital was being taken to The Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea.

According to Todd, a larger concern is fire rescue operations — especially if there is a car accident or other rescue needed in one of the valleys or gulches along the Hamakua Coast — because Hilo’s rescue truck is too heavy for the bridge.

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“Our personnel have been chatting about it throughout the day and coming up with some creative solutions, such as using the chopper and ferrying personnel out with smaller vehicles while we’re waiting for our Kona truck to come around the longer way,” he said. “We’d still be able to get there in about the same amount of time, but there’s more logistical thought about how are we going to get our (equipment) over there.”

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

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