State puts scores of highway improvements on hold, citing lack of new funding

State puts scores of highway improvements on hold, citing lack of new funding
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lawmakers' decision not to pass a controversial gas tax has spurred the state to hit the brakes on dozens of highway projects, according to state Department of Transportation officials.

State Highways Division Deputy Director Ed Sniffen says the state doesn't have the funding they need to do much more than maintenance.

"It would be very difficult for me to justify moving forward with building new roads if I can't maintain the ones I already have," Sniffen said.

Of 72 planned highway projects, just six are moving forward. The impact will be felt statewide.

On Oahu, only one project is authorized, and 14 are deferred. On Maui, four projects are moving ahead, while 17 are delayed. On Hawaii Island, one improvement is scheduled, and 19 others are sidelined. On Kauai, plans for all 16 projects are put on hold.

"It's not a no. We're still developing, we're still moving forward on the projects should the time come that we have the funding and we're moving forward with operational improvements now to make sure that we affect things as soon as possible," Sniffen said.

Transportation officials say say large capacity projects like those planned run in the hundreds of millions of dollars and take anywhere from seven to 15 years to complete.

"We know that in 10 years this whole model of transportation may flip, so for me to build new roads and bypasses that may not be utilized, I don't want to expend the money like that," Sniffen said. "I would much rather set up the system with improvements that can be used now that can set the system up to be flexible in the future.

Gov. David Ige says states across the country are facing similar difficulties funding major infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have accused him of withholding state funding to get them to pass the controversial state gas, weigh and vehicle tax increase.

"They were fully aware -- prior to session starting, all the way to every hearing that we had on the proposal -- about what the consequences of not funding it would be," Ige countered.

The governor denies that switching gears from building new infrastructure to maintaining existing roads is meant to pressure lawmakers into approving his proposal.

"We were very clear and transparent prior to session in presenting the case for the gas, the fuel, the vehicle weight tax program," he said. "We only had so much resources and advocated that the increase in fees and taxes would give us the additional resources to implement the programs. Lacking that, we would be focused on maintenance and those lower costs projects that would get us more immediate impact."

Lawmakers say the increase didn't have any public support, so they appropriated $37 million to the Highway Fund in lieu of passing the gas tax.

State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, whose district includes Waianae, says her constituents are among those who will be impacted. A project to widen a portion of Farrington Highway to help alleviate West Oahu congestion is among those put on hold.

"It's very disappointing for all of us on the Waianae coast because that would have made a tremendous difference. That extra lane through Nanakuli would have been really the answer that we've all been waiting for for so long," she said.

Without additional money through taxes or fees, the state is focusing on repairs and traffic mitigation efforts, such as contra-flowing lanes.

"The administration is taking this difficult position that's not popular obviously because it's something that's long overdue and is needed because of our growing population and the growing traffic woes that we all face everyday," Shimabukuro said.

Copyright 2016 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.