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Roundabout among ideas for Waianuenue intersection in Hilo

December 13, 2013 - 8:42pm

Could a roundabout be in the cards for a planned expansion of the intersection at Waianuenue Avenue, Hawaii Belt Road, Bayfront Highway, and Kamehameha Avenue?

It’s an idea that has been bandied about for several years and is starting to gain traction, said Christine Mingo, chairwoman of the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association’s Planning and Government Affairs committee.

“I was strongly opposed to it at first,” she admitted. “I just didn’t see how it could work. But now, I think a roundabout is the best thing for that location.”

The state Department of Transportation plans to begin design work for improvements at that intersection next year, said DOT Hawaii District Engineer Salvador Panem.

“I’m gonna call our design team to do it in-house,” he said. “But we still have a lot of preparations to do. We’ve got to relocate some signage and do some drainage work. And we’re gonna need the hydraulics guys to come in and the civil guys to scope the work out. Then they’ll be ready to do the design work. … I want to start design sometime next year for it.”

He added that he will look at the possible inclusion of a crosswalk so that pedestrians can safely cross to the lighthouse and the bay.

“It’s a popular area for a lot of people and they have historic value there. It’s a good location for people to cross to get over there. But we’re still in the preliminary stage, so we won’t know if that’s possible until we go into the design,” he said.

Essentially, he said, the project’s main goal is to make access more smooth for vehicles entering and leaving the downtown area via the cramped intersection where four roadways converge.

“Basically, the idea is to widen that intersection,” he said. “The area is a congestion point.”

Traffic can become especially snarled there when tractor-trailers enter the equation, he said.

“All traffic that runs through there is directed downtown, and when you have those heavy trucks that try to make a right turn (from Hawaii Belt Road onto Waianuenue Avenue), they have to swing wide, and if there’s a car there (in the left lane), the only way they can get out is to climb the curb. We want to address that,” he said.

With planners prepping to begin design of the intersection improvements, Mingo says now is the time to get the idea for the roundabout in the public eye and build consensus.

“That is our gateway to downtown Hilo, and yet northbound traffic cannot turn left into downtown (from Bayfront Highway). There’s nothing special about that intersection, nothing that says ‘We’re proud of our community.’ We’re just completely cheating ourselves,” she said.

Chris Hardenbrook, a geographic information systems analyst at the Hawaii County Planning Department, drew a mock-up of the roundabout at the intersection for the Envision Downtown Hilo 2025 plan, which was most recently updated in 2010, and makes a case for the idea on his website, hilobigisland.com/a-traffic-roundabout-for-downtown-hilo.

“The idea for a roundabout there is not new. It’s several years old. But, it’s been pretty slow on the acceptance level with the state DOT. They’ve been saying no. But now I think they’re considering it, there’s more interest,” he said.

Hardenbrook explained that Hawaii only has a few roundabouts statewide, so area residents may be unfamiliar and therefore wary of the idea.

“It’s a very foreign concept,” he said. “They think of it as chaos. But the fact is there are no new driving skills to learn. The benefits are so numerous. Especially in our situation with the intersection located close to the ocean, because maintenance on the streetlights can be close to $10,000 a year because of salt damage. With a roundabout you have no lights so you don’t have that maintenance.”

He added that the roundabouts serve to slow traffic down, cutting back injurious collisions by an average of 75 percent.

“There’s a 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions, a 37 percent reduction in overall collisions and a 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions on roundabouts,” he added.

The roundabout would provide access in any direction, solving the issue of drivers being unable to turn left off of Bayfront Highway onto Waianuenue, and would also allow for large vehicles, including a curb in the center onto which the largest vehicles could drive to ensure they make it through the tight space.

Meanwhile, the single lanes leading to the roundabout could include crosswalks to ease pedestrian access to the lighthouse area, he said. Currently, the state DOT is considering an April start for construction of a single-lane roundabout in Pahoa at the intersection of Route 130 and Old Government Road.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.