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HDOT to county: Need funds for Puna roads? Look elsewhere

Updated: 
March 20, 2017 - 12:05am

The state Department of Transportation’s response to Hawaii County’s request for release of $15 million appropriated for Puna roads could be summed up in two words — nice try.

In a blunt letter to county officials, DOT Deputy Director Ed Sniffen said the department will not release funds state lawmakers approved in 2015 and suggested that spending or giving the county the money could impact priority projects, such as improving Highway 130.

“As it is, HDOT’s funding is insufficient to support the current and future needs of the statewide highways system as it is,” he said in the March 8 email. “… If the county of Hawaii is seeking additional funding, they should not look to HDOT.”

The correspondence was sent ahead of the County Council voting on a resolution urging the funding to be distributed to the county prior to the appropriation’s expiration June 30.

According to the document, the funds were allocated for construction and maintenance of “feeder roads and alternate routes for Highway 130.”

The council narrowly approved the resolution March 8 but not before a brief debate about whether it would only make matters worse in light of Sniffen’s statement.

Some council members advised Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, who introduced the resolution, to take a softer approach.

“We should encourage them to do more with (Highway) 130 and dovetail that with the county’s work,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. She said Sniffen is her cousin and offered to help set up a meeting between him and Ruggles.

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who voted for the resolution, said she also was concerned it would hurt the county’s relationship with the department.

But Ruggles, who represents Puna mauka, said she was standing by it to support her constituents who consider roads a priority.

“Obviously, they are not going to do it,” she said, in regard to releasing the money. “… I have to stand with the people of my district who are at risk of being cut off” when the highways are blocked.

Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter backed her up.

“I don’t care if it’s in a strong way,” she said, regarding the resolution. “Sniffen wrote a strong letter, too.”

While the state’s not kicking in money, the county is pursuing a master plan to improve connectivity between Puna subdivisions that could provide detours when wrecks block either Highway 11 or Highway 130, said Public Works Director Frank De Marco.

Such planning, though, is already being done by the connectivity subcommittee for the Puna Community Development Plan’s action committee.

Their work led recently to the filing, with the county’s help, of a final environmental assessment for creating connections between upper Puna subdivisions.

Ruggles said Friday she plans to seek funding to complete one of the connections identified in the plan: extending Puhala Street in Fern Acres to South Kopua Road. The EA says that could cost between $107,100 and $138,600.

She said such connections would help keep traffic off Highway 11.

Patti Pinto, chairwoman of the connectivity group, said the administration has not yet reached out to them about the master plan.

“I had no idea they were planning a master plan,” she said.

Pinto added: “We would really love to work with the county or anybody who is working on this. It’s just so overdue.”

De Marco said the county would be building off the group’s work.

“The intent is to capture existing plans and to move them forward and by actually doing a physical plan or design,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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