By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Engineers working for the state Department of Transportation say that plans for a traffic circle at one of the most dangerous intersections in the state will prevent accidents and could potentially save lives.
But many of the approximately 50 residents at a meeting in Pahoa on Wednesday night appeared to believe the opposite, saying that a roundabout in lieu of a stoplight at Keaau-Pahoa and Old Government roads would end up being everything from an inconvenience to a deadly folly.
State Department of Transportation Highways Division Administrator Alvin Takeshita, a Hilo native, told attendees that he personally studied the intersection and concluded that a single-lane roundabout was the “most appropriate” solution for that stretch of highway for a variety of reasons.
He explained that the roundabout would require drivers to slow down as they approach it, and then yield to vehicles already in the circular lane at the center. Drivers going in any direction would only need to make right turns, thereby preventing the head-on and broadside collisions that have plagued the intersection. That would add up to fewer injuries and deaths, he argued.
“I know that on the highway, it (the speed limit) is 55 (mph), and I know people are going 60, or 65. I can’t expect someone to slow down to 20 mph in 500 feet. That’s nuts. Somebody’s gonna get killed. People have to slow down … in sections, 10 miles an hour at a time (as they approach) and then yield,” he said.
For more than one meeting attendee, however, that sounded like a tall order.
“This is Hawaii,” said one man who did not give his name. “People don’t understand what ‘yield’ is. … They gonna drive right through it and hit somebody.”
“This is lunacy!” shouted another visibly angry man as he pointed at the plan, an image of which was projected on the wall.
There was plenty of scoffing, continuous muttering, and loud interruptions as DOT representatives attempted to present their plans. One particularly agitated man, who swore and paced near the entrance to the Pahoa Neighborhood Facility throughout the meeting, said he had driven through plenty of roundabouts during his time in Mexico, adding that he’d also seen plenty of accidents involving the roadways.
“They’re all over Mexico. … It’s because they don’t have the money for the electricity for a stoplight,” he said. “They don’t have the technology, or the money for maintenance. We’re not stupid in Hawaii. We’re not stupid in Pahoa.”
Other members of the crowd supported the plan, but tended to be less vocal.
One woman, however, made an impassioned and seemingly well-researched argument in favor of roundabouts.
“It seems to me that people here think it would be the end of the world installing a roundabout,” said Elizabeth Weatherford. “But they have been shown in countries all over the world to reduce accidents, by up to 70 percent. The Insurance Institute for Hawaii Safety, the AARP, the AAA … they all recommend roundabouts.”
Even so, she continued, there “will be losers in this if we get a roundabout. The people who repair and maintain the stoplight, and Ken’s Towing.”
Another man, Steven Jacquier, went up to DOT representatives after the meeting to thank them for working on the plans.
“I used to live in Anchorage, Alaska, and this same issue came up there,” he said. “They wanted to put in a roundabout, and I opposed it. I was worried about how dark it was, and the snow and ice. I thought it would be dangerous.
“But, luckily, they did it anyway. It was a big improvement. … They were right, and I was wrong.”
The $5 million construction project will be funded by both state and federal funds, and involve the conversion of the existing T-intersection to a single-lane roundabout. Work would include demolition; pavement construction; water, drain, electrical and street light adjustment; slope reinforcement; sidewalk and curb ramp construction; striping and signage; and landscaping.
The design phase is anticipated to continue through February 2013. Advertising and bidding for the construction will continue through April 2013, followed by an anticipated beginning to construction in summer of 2013. The project would then be complete about one year later.
During the year-long construction phase, the complete closure of the intersection at Pahoa Bypass Road and Old Government Road will be necessitated. Traffic would be detoured onto Pahoa Village Road and Kahakai Boulevard, with a speed limit of 25 mph. Speed would also be controlled by “bulb-outs,” or curb extensions, and a left turn pocket lane would be created for traffic leaving Pahoa Marketplace.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.