By ERIN MILLER
Stephens Media Hawaii
More than two decades ago, Sen. Daniel Inouye wrote a letter to the then commander at Pohakuloa Training Area thanking that military leader for his idea to build a better Saddle Road.
“But we all know the real deal,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Pete Johnson said during Saturday’s blessing, which officially opened the road’s western realignment and renamed the entire highway for the late, long-serving senator. “This was not an Army idea. This was the senator’s idea and vision. He was not about credit.”
Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye, acknowledged that her husband had asked for nothing to be named for him while he was still living. The senator passed away in December at age 88; he would have turned 89 Saturday.
“I can think of no better birthday present than to have this be opened and named after him today,” Irene Inouye said.
She and other speakers shared credit for the significant work completed on the road in the last decade with a number of county, state and federal organizations, as well as Big Island community groups such as the Saddle Road Task Force.
The realignment takes the Daniel K. Inouye Highway — several dignitaries suggested calling it the DKI for short — slightly south as it heads makai from about mile-marker 42, reaching Mamalahoa Highway south of the Waikoloa Road junction and several miles closer to Kailua-Kona. Officials said the new alignment will cut 15 to 20 minutes off the commute from one side of the island to the other.
That commute was once only a theoretical concept, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said, recalling his first trek across the saddle.
“Does the word fog strike anybody?” Abercrombie said, invoking a memory of thick fog covering the narrow, hilly and winding route that was the new highway’s predecessor. He said he asked the person driving the vehicle that night, “What happens if we break down? It was not comforting for somebody to say, ‘Hopefully we’ll be found.’”
He added he hopes the new road will allow for a more contemplative driving experience.
“Hopefully, there will be much less adventure on the Saddle Road now,” he said.
Mayor Billy Kenoi admitted to attendees he called in a favor with Goodfellow Bros., the project’s lead contractor, a few weeks ago. Kenoi was running late on his drive from Hilo to Kona for a cabinet meeting and asked a Goodfellow Bros. manager if he could test out the new road.
Kenoi said he enjoyed the astonished looks on his cabinet members’ faces when they discovered that he, who had left 30 minutes later than they did, had arrived first. But the little victory he celebrated came with a price, he later learned, when he saw the drive over the newly paved road left his car coated with asphalt.
In that moment, he said, he heard Inouye’s voice in his head.
“Billy,” Kenoi imagined Inouye saying, “you may be mayor, but there are no short cuts.”
To date, state and federal agencies have spent $290 million rebuilding and realigning the road, from near Hilo to this latest segment. Several speakers referenced plans to add a new leg of the road, from the new Mamalahoa Highway intersection down to Queen Kaahumanu Highway at Waikoloa Beach Drive.
The highway was to open to the public at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Email Erin Miller at email@example.com.