Tuesday | January 16, 2018
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Inouye’s vision fulfilled; Officials, community celebrate completion of Saddle Road project

It was a moment deemed “exemplary” by some of the state, federal and county officials and community members who gathered on a windy Tuesday morning to celebrate the long-awaited completion of the final phase of improvements to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road.

The widening and realignment project connects the existing highway near milepost 11 to the west end of the Puainako Street extension in Hilo.

The project culminates years of improvements to the cross-island highway that have spanned 48 miles and cost $316.5 million. The road was originally built in 1942 as a one-lane thoroughfare to connect military training facilities.

“This fulfills the late Sen. (Daniel) Inouye’s vision of a safe, efficient route across the largest island in our state,” Gov. David Ige told the more than 60 people gathered for the 90-minute dedication ceremony. “This was no small undertaking. … We’re talking about 48 miles of World War II era roads to modern safety standards.

“Safe and reliable transportation infrastructure is the backbone of any economy,” Ige added. “Without that means to transport workers and goods, Hawaii Island’s economy would not be able to grow and thrive.”

The final phase cost $57 million, which was within its allocated budget. It improved about 6 miles of highway and added about 3 additional miles of new road. Additional safety features also were added, including 8-foot shoulder lanes for passing, a straighter alignment and a climbing lane for slower and larger vehicles.

Funding for the project came from the federal government and the state Department of Transportation. The U.S. Army also contributed more than $100 million.

Crews encountered “unique” challenges during the latest phase, project leaders said Tuesday, which included treating and clearing ohia trees to prevent the spread of rapid ohia death. Added work pushed back the targeted completion, which was previously scheduled for August.

Crews also dealt with challenging working conditions, including heavy rain, and had to contend with difficult surfaces such as basalt, pahoehoe and volcanic ash.

Improvements overall have cut cross-island travel time significantly and increased the number of daily cars that use the road for commuting by 250 percent since 2012, officials said Tuesday. The number of accidents on the Saddle also has dropped 80 percent in that same time frame.

“The old Saddle was treacherous,” Walter Kunitake, chairman of the Saddle Road task force, told the Tribune-Herald. “And on a foggy night it was more than treacherous. So this has really helped in terms of the safety factor. That’s a really big one. But it really took an entire community …. a lot of people, a vision and an execution. It all came together, and I think this is a real meaningful day of celebration.”

Kunitake said officials are still moving forward with planning for the last extension of Saddle Road which will connect it with Queen Kaahumanu Highway near Waikoloa. He said he hopes to have an environmental impact statement complete for that project by early 2018.

“And from there on, hopefully our energy will be focused on getting a contract out,” he said. “So 2018, the EIS is done, and hopefully within two or three years we’ll be able to see the machines working to do the job.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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