By NANCY COOK LAUER
The final leg of Saddle Road, linking the cross-island route from Hilo to the Waikoloa resorts, is one of several Hawaii Island projects that could find its funding in jeopardy following the death Monday of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
But another local recipient of Inouye’s earmarks in the past, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, has already weaned itself from the dedicated source of federal funding and is managing without it.
“Sen. Inouye’s passing is a tremendous loss to the community,” said ‘Imiloa Executive Director Ka‘iu Kimura. “It won’t have an impact on our operations. We’ve been preparing ourselves to be off earmarks, and we’re doing OK.”
After losing earmarks in 2010, the astronomy center, part of the University of Hawaii system, sought out competitive grants and raised money through ticket sales and its restaurant to make up the difference.
“Our revenue stream is quite diverse,” Kimura said.
Construction of the current phase of the Saddle Road project, from about the 14-mile marker of Mamalahoa Highway to the 41.5-mile marker of the existing Saddle Road, is running ahead of schedule, Mike Will, project manager for the Federal Highway Administration’s Central Federal Lands Highway Division, said Wednesday.
Goodfellow Bros. was recently awarded a $31 million paving contract for the segment. That follows Kirkland Construction’s $33.7 million contract for grading, drainage and erosion control for the 10.3-mile segment.
Walter Kunitake, who sits on the nine-member Saddle Road Task Force, told Stephens Media earlier this year the new 10-mile stretch alone would save 10 to 15 minutes of driving time each way between Kona and Hilo. It’s expected to be complete by August or September.
The final segment of the project, Mamalahoa Highway to Queen Kaahumanu Highway at Waikoloa Beach Drive, could begin as soon as 2017 and be completed by 2019, according to an environmental impact statement preparation notice released this summer. But there has been no appropriation of the $45 million to $50 million estimated for the work.
“We are hopeful and optimistic that it will continue, in spite of the passing of our beloved senator,” said Mayor Billy Kenoi. “Right now there’s clearly more questions than answers.”
An environmental impact study estimated the highway’s average traffic load will increase from 1,400 vehicles per day to more than 4,200 vehicles in 2020 and to 6,500 vehicles a day by 2034. The extension would be designed for 50 mph traffic, with two lanes and a maximum 7 percent grade.
Work still remains to repave the Hilo side of Saddle Road, but that’s expected to be done by the state. That part of the highway, from the upper end of the Puainako Extension to the 11-mile marker of Saddle Road, doesn’t depend on federal funding.
Another project that does depend on federal funding, however, is the next phase of Ane Keohokalole Highway, which runs parallel to and about one mile mauka of Queen Kaahumanu Highway from Palani Road to Hina Lani Street in Kaloko. Also known as the midlevel road, it is a two-lane road with wide shoulders and room for additional expansion in the future. It opened this summer after the county received $35 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.
The next phase of Ane Keohokalole, which will take the road from Hina Lani Street to Kaiminani Drive, was estimated in February to cost $30 million to $50 million. Kenoi said he’ll continue to seek funding for the project.
“Clearly a lot of work needs to be done with everybody working together to ensure projects that are started are ultimately completed with help from the county, state and congressional delegation,” Kenoi said.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.