Wednesday, April 16, 2014

BY ERIN MILLER | WEST HAWAII TODAY

Without fail, South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford says, Civil Defense emergency sirens go off and, within five minutes, traffic on Alii Drive backs up.

The situation was no different late last week, when Big Island residents were warned they had about six hours to evacuate coastal areas in advance of a tsunami moving east from Japan. Ford said she didn't hear many complaints about gridlock last week, but county Civil Defense Administrator Quince Mento said he did hear reports of traffic backing up.

His best hope for resolving the situation is the same as Ford's -- opening more mauka-makai roads to provide additional exits from Alii Drive.

"I hope Lako Street gets built," Mento said, referring to the long-planned connection of the street from its current terminus down to Alii Drive.

What would happen if a local earthquake generated a tsunami? Mento said able-bodied residents need to be prepared to evacuate on foot.

"As a rule of thumb, what's safe is a 40-foot elevation," Mento said. "It's not difficult to reach that. Just start walking mauka of Alii Drive."

People walking out of the evacuation zone need to go only a little way in to some of the subdivisions to be out of harm's way, he added, even if police are posted at intersections farther uphill. Walking out of the evacuation zone may also leave roads a bit emptier for people who have difficulty walking, he said, while acknowledging the difficulty people have leaving their possessions, including a car, in the wake of an oncoming wave.

Motorists leaving Alii Drive condos and homes should head south, away from town, and take the first road that heads mauka, Kona Patrol Capt. Sam Kawamoto said. That will make for less congestion along Alii Drive and a smoother evacuation process, he said.

"Know your evacuation routes," Kawamoto added. "If we do get into a situation, try to do it quickly and orderly."

Ford said she focused her efforts on the Laaloa Street extension because it was closer to getting started than the Lako Street extension. She put the Lako project on the shelf two years ago, when a combination of land acquisition issues and Hawaiian burials came up and slowed progress on the project. The Laaloa project is "so close" to going out to bid, she said.

She will continue pushing for progress on Lako Street, she said.

Council Chairman Dominic Yagong traced some of the current traffic and evacuation issues back to his first terms on the council, in the late 1990s, when a majority of council members voted to remove a requirement that developers provide connector roads.

"I was appalled," he said, recalling his reaction when the measure was approved.

He didn't know off-hand how much land was still waiting to be developed mauka of Alii Drive, land to which connector road requirements could be attached if new development is proposed. But he'd still like to see the council add a connector road condition back into county code.

"We need to make sure we put in the law something that states conditions of any mauka-makai connector cannot be eliminated by the County Council," Yagong said.

Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said developers may not own all the land along a proposed connector road route, which can delay building the road. The county needs to identify the projects, get bond funding and start building, she said.

"If you're going to do it, I don't think you wait for private developers," Leithead-Todd said. "Ultimately, if you want to build it now, government needs to take the lead on it."

That puts the ball back in the council's court, Mayor Billy Kenoi said. He referred to a $56 million bond bill his administration brought to the council late last year that listed $20 million for Laaloa. Some council members and members of the public said they wanted the project funded, but noted the bond authorization bill didn't tie the bond amount to specific projects, and warned the county could spend the money on any project once the bond was approved.

Kenoi said Thursday the county is ready to bid the Laaloa project, as soon as the council approves funding.

"There's a lot of talk of 'woulda, coulda, shoulda,'" Kenoi said, when asked about previous developers being exempted from building connector roads. "We're dealing with the situation we have."

emiller@westhawaiitoday.com

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