By NANCY COOK LAUER
The state Department of Transportation is asking the Hawaii County Water Board to come up with as much as $395,865 over the $3.7 million it’s already committed for the Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening project.
The project, which will expand the road between Kealakehe Parkway to Kona International Airport from two lanes to four, has run into delays and cost overruns due to the re-alignment of a portion of the highway to avoid archaeological sites. DOT had given the county Department of Water Supply until June 10 to commit to the additional funding or have the proposed water system removed from the project’s scope.
But there could be a little relief in sight, Quirino Antonio Jr., the water agency’s manager/chief engineer, told the Water Board on Tuesday. He said DOT has backed off its June 10 deadline and agreed to work with the engineering consultants and the contractor to try to get the price down.
DOT Director Glenn Okimoto formalized that agreement in a June 19 letter to the Water Board. He said the contractor, DOT staff and Water Supply staff met May 24 to discuss alternatives to the redesign in order to minimize costs to the water department.
“Serious discussions with the contractor will come closer in the negotiations,” Antonio said. “We’re pretty close but we haven’t seen details or a cost at this point.”
Antonio said DOT is talking about beginning construction in August.
Sewer lines are also part of the plan, and Antonio said he believes the county Department of Environmental Management has the money it needs budgeted already but is awaiting the results of the Water Department’s negotiations.
“They’re waiting to see how we negotiate our cost down with DOT,” Antonio said.
DEM Wastewater Division Chief Dora Beck said via email that her department has been “independently negotiating with the state DOT to bring costs down for the sewer and effluent reuse portion of the project.”
The state ran into a number of hurdles in its attempt to build the road, including two bid award protests, followed by a lengthy consultation and negotiation process with several Native Hawaiians who have expressed concerns about impacts the road will have on cultural and historical sites.
The problem, according to state Rep. Denny Coffman, a Democrat whose district runs from Naalehu to Kailua-Kona, is that the state took so long to begin and complete the first phase from Palani Road to Kealakehe Parkway that the environmental studies are now roughly 15 years old.
“You can’t go off an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement that old,” Coffman said at a Kona Town meeting last month. “Things change.”
Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, Kohala, said she frequently asked a state DOT highways official for updates on the consultation process. The regular response, Evans said, was, “we’ll be done when we’re done.”
The consultation process has dragged on for about 18 months now, Evans said.
“At some point, the federal government can say, we have exhausted the discussion, we can move forward on construction,” Evans said. “Saying that doesn’t preclude a lawsuit. You don’t know when you go in front of a judge how it will play out.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.