By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Dignitaries and motorists alike celebrated a milestone in the Saddle Road project last Saturday with the opening of the new western alignment to Mamalahoa Highway, allowing drivers to shave 18 minutes off the cross-island trek.
But when the next piece of the puzzle for the realignment effort — involving the straightening of a 5.5-mile stretch outside Hilo — will be put in place remains to be seen.
That stretch, between mile markers 5.5 and 11, is expected to cost between $50 million and $55 million. So far, no funds have been committed and the state Department of Transportation currently doesn’t have a timeline for construction.
The DOT had recently sought $34 million through a federal grant program for that phase. The agency was notified Sept. 5 that it was not awarded the TIGER grant funds, spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said in an email.
The U.S. Department of Transportation had issued $474 million in grants through its TIGER program to 52 projects. It received 585 applications.
What options the state has for securing funding wasn’t immediately clear.
Even without the funds, the DOT still needs to resolve property acquisition for the new east-side alignment.
Eight property owners have accepted offers from the state for granting right-of-entry, but another four are going through eminent domain.
Sluyter said in the email that the DOT had hoped acquisition would be done by now, and acknowledged that there have been some delays.
Walter Kunitake, chair of the Saddle Road Task Force, said he wasn’t surprised that the project didn’t receive the grant.
“It’s actually more surprising when you get them,” he said. “This is really highly competitive.”
Kunitake said he was notified a few days before the Saturday celebration that the grant wasn’t received.
He said he didn’t spread the word around in order to focus on the event.
Kunitake said he is confident that the money will be found.
“We know that over the 20 years we’ve been on this, there will be ways, we will be able to find the funding,” he said.
The road has been officially named the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, in memory of the U.S. senator who helped champion the project.
With the passing of Inouye last year, it may be harder to secure funding than before, Kunitake acknowledged.
“We are all optimistic,” he said.
“We have a big team of people. Obviously, the senator was a major force getting funds over the years.”
Mayor Billy Kenoi said he was disappointed DOT wasn’t successful winning the grant, but added Hawaii County will continue working with its congressional delegation to secure funding.
“We know it’s going to be challenging, but we’re hopeful,” he said.
Kenoi noted the importance of the road for connecting East and West Hawaii and the need to make the trip quicker and safer.
He also said the response since the opening of the new alignment on the west side has been positive.
“Everybody we talk to has been very excited about the road being completed,” Kenoi said.
“You don’t just get there quicker, but you feel safer and more peaceful on the drive,” he added.
The state also intends to complete an extension down to Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Kunitake said, adding an environmental impact statement is in progress.
He said he is hopeful a public hearing can be held on it by the end of the year.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.