The drive from Kona to Hilo will get 18 minutes shorter Sept. 7.
That’s when the new Saddle Road alignment, bringing the intersection with Mamalahoa Highway seven miles closer to Kailua-Kona, opens. That day, officials will dedicate the road in the morning, opening it at 3 p.m. to traffic under its new moniker, the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, federal transportation officials said.
Next up for state and federal officials, who have been realigning and improving the cross-island route since 2004, is awaiting word on whether the final 5-mile portion will qualify for a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, said Project Manager Mike Will, with the Federal Highway Administration’s Central Federal Lands Highway Division. The grants are better known as TIGER grants.
Sen. Brian Schatz, on island Wednesday to take a look at the new road, said he has a meeting scheduled with federal Transportation Director Anthony Foxx to discuss the project.
“There is a tremendous reservoir of aloha for Sen. Inouye everywhere,” Schatz said, when asked what the feeling was among politicians about funding the remainder of the highway improvements. “There’s a strong desire in assisting our delegation in completing projects he deemed a priority.”
Saddle Road was a high priority for Hawaii’s late senior senator, Schatz said.
“He understood how much it would change the quality of life on the island,” he said.
Will said federal officials usually select TIGER grant recipients within three to four months of the applications being filed. The Saddle Road request, which will realign about 2 miles and improve another 3 on the Hilo side of the highway, was filed June 3. Schatz said the grants were incredibly competitive, with significantly more funding requested than is available to award.
The section of highway that will be done this fall was funded in part — about $13.5 million — through one of those grants.
Since 2004, 41 miles of the 48-mile-long road have been realigned, at a cost of about $290 million.
The new alignment takes motorists from about mile marker 14 on Mamalahoa Highway to about mile marker 42 on the existing Saddle Road, cutting roughly eight miles off the route. The newest alignment features a 55 mph speed limit, wide shoulders, two lanes headed mauka for its entire length and ramps for trucks to slow down if needed.
The existing portion of Saddle Road will remain open, with drivers coming to a stop before entering traffic on the new road.
A bridge, on which contractors tested a technique new to the Big Island, goes over a military access road at one point.
To meet the Sept. 7 deadline, crews worked seven days a week recently, for a 35- to 40-day stretch, project coordinator Mark Smith said.
That deadline, though, is about four months ahead of when the Central Federal Land Highways Division anticipated the work would wrap up, Smith said.
He attributed much of the increased construction speed to lead contractor Goodfellow Bros., which set its own aggressive work schedule and strove to finish the project on time and within the $32.5 million budget.
Officials began an environmental impact statement for a road extension in 1999.
In 2003, changes in military plans for land through which Saddle Road runs prompted federal officials to put on hold any additional road planning, until 2010, when federal highways and military officials selected a new terminus for Saddle Road.
Once officials knew where Saddle Road would end, they again began planning for the extension.