By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Herb Tateishi, of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the primary design
consultant for the H-3, has an eagle's view of the structure from
the top floor of the tunnel. He began working on the freeway
in 1970, when he was with the state Transportation
Department. He retired in 1982.

Open road

After decades of controversy,
the 16.1-mile highway will
soon open for business

By Mike Yuen

It seemed at times like it would never open, and some hoped it never would. But Oahu drivers next week finally will be able to hop into the family car and take a spin on the H-3 freeway, experiencing for themselves the costliest and most controversial stretch of highway the islands have seen.

Officials say the Dec. 12 opening marks the start of traffic relief for frustrated drivers shuttling between Windward and Leeward Oahu.

"I am optimistic that once H-3 is open for all to use, it will become one of the more popular highways in our state," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, one of the prime boosters of the $1.3 billion project.

As much as a start, the opening also represents an end - to a 37-year history filled with protests, legal battles, design changes and cost revisions in which community activists, environmentalists and native Hawaiians were pitted against transportation specialists, powerful politicians and disgruntled motorists, raising development and other issues emblematic of local concerns.

By David Swann, Star-Bulletin
This is a small version of a 450K graphic by Star-Bulletin staff
artist David Swann. Click on the image to see the
(very large) full-sized version.

Yet, there is general acknowledgment that much remains to be done to reduce traffic congestion. A Texas A&M study ranks Honolulu as the country's 12th most gridlocked urban area, just behind New York City. The Texas Transportation Institute says drivers here spend 36 hours a year stuck behind the wheel, only four hours fewer than their Big Apple counterparts. Some wonder if a light-rail mass transit system still might be needed in the future.

A tremendous impact

At the moment, though, attention is focused on the H-3, which proponents tout as one of the nation's most spectacular mountain drives. With good reason: From North Halawa Valley, the 16.1-mile roadway passes through mile-long tunnels cut into Koolau Mountains lava rock before emerging in lush Haiku Valley, skirting the Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden and ending at the Marine base in Kaneohe.

How much will it be used? One study projects 120,000 daily trips on the four-lane freeway by the year 2010, at which time state Transportation officials hope trans-Koolau traffic will be evenly divided between the H-3, and the Pali and Likelike highways.

The H-3 for the time being is expected to reduce vehicle flow on the other two highways by five to 10 percent, which Transportation spokeswoman Marilyn Kali calls "a tremendous reduction." Officials stress the freeway is meant for Windward drivers destined for Halawa and points west, since commuters downtown likely would use the closer Pali and Likelike routes.

Two city express bus routes, the 86 and 86A, will immediately start using the H-3, running from Windward Oahu to the Pearl Harbor Naval Supply Center, the department said.

The H-3 was conceived when the domino theory prevailed for Southeast Asia and planners saw the need for a quick military route from Kaneohe to Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base. Under that rationale, the project, initially estimated to cost $250 million, tapped into funds for the Federal Interstate and Defense Highway System.

The Cold War since has cooled, and with it, the sense of urgency. But a "significant portion" of personnel with a P-3 squadron being moved from Barbers Point to Kanehoe will be housed at Pearl Harbor and will use the freeway to commute, said Inouye, whose role in keeping the H-3 alive spurred critics to dub it "Danny's Highway."

Rail on?

While opponents feel the H-3 is a visual and environmental blight that's insensitive to the native Hawaiian culture, proponents are convinced their position was right all along.

"It wasn't fun, but H-3 was necessary," said former Transportation Director E. Alvey Wright, a leading advocate who was shouted down and heckled at community meetings. Tetsuno Harano, a retired highways administrator and namesake of the H-3 tunnels, blames foes for slowing construction and driving costs up.

"The benefit would have been realized much earlier," he said.

But the H-3 is not a panacea, and both men think city officials should again try to launch a light-rail project to cut traffic congestion in Leeward Oahu, which they say will continue to grow because of the numerous housing developments there.

The City Council voted against such a plan five years ago, an embarrassment to Inouye, who had secured federal money after being verbally assured local matching funds would be provided.

Inouye said he would be willing to "take another shot at it" -- but only if the state and city gives him assurances of matching funds "signed and sealed." He emphasized budget constraints make it highly unlikely Oahu will get as much as the $620 million authorized before.

Nevertheless, he added there are indications funds will be freed next year to study improvements to the Leeward traffic corridor.

In addition to rail, another possible option is double-decking existing highways, although how the idea will play with the public is unclear, said Kazu Hayashida, the current Transportation head.

H-3 Freeway timeline

In the short term, Hayashida is banking on the growth of Kapolei as Oahu's second city to draw traffic away from job centers in the downtown area and Waikiki.

Hayashida sees great promise in adding buses to make existing roads more "efficient." But, he concedes, "The only problem is that buses share the same highways as cars and trucks. Maybe there could be some bus-rail combination."

$80 million a mile

Honolulu business executive Cliff Slater, who helped galvanize opposition to rail plans, said he won't take renewed talk seriously until federal money is committed. He also criticized the H-3, labeling the $80 million-a-mile road "a boondoggle" that was built only because it had 90 percent federal funding.

"When you spend your own money," he said, "a sense of reality intrudes."

But opponents don't regret their long and ultimately losing battle, saying it helped shelve plans to urbanize Windward Oahu and make rural Kahaluu the island's second city.

Community activist Bob Nakata said the H-3 fight was a training ground for native Hawaiians and environmentalists, since it was the first project in Hawaii requiring a federal environmental impact statement, a crucial focal point in that and later campaigns.

In some ways, the project foreshadowed conflicts between convenience and conservation that residents on Hawaii's most urbanized island continue to face. Nakata felt the impact directly in 1986, when he was a Windward Democrat seeking a third state House term, and an accident a week before the primary backed up Likelike traffic for four miles. Known for his freeway opposition, he noticed feelings immediately shift. In the end, he lost by 182 votes.

Nakata doesn't think many motorists will be using the freeway and predicts those who do will turn the section that feeds into the H-1 Freeway near Pearl Harbor into a bottleneck.

Come next week Friday, the state will be watching, and drivers undoubtedly will let officials know if they feel the investment was a good one or if they agree with Nakata.

"I'm not sure," he said, "this is going to be worth $1.3 billion."

The Money

About $1 billion of the freeway's $1.3 billion price tag went to construction firms and joint ventures. The rest was spent on other costs, such as inspections, tests and contingency plans to cover unforeseen problems. About $11 million more will go toward archaeological access and visitor centers for ancient Hawaiian sites near the freeway. Here's what contractors were paid:

$309.7 million

Kiewit Pacific Co. (Kapolei)
North Halawa Valley viaduct: One-mile segmental twin viaduct next to Halawa portal of trans-Koolau tunnel.
North Halawa Valley highway IB: One-mile section with bridges.
Roadway finish Unit III: Finishing work on exploratory tunnel and access road. February 1998 completion.
Tunnel finish: Architectural finishes, electrical and mechanical systems.
Haiku Access Road: 2.1-mile access road through Haiku Valley to tunnel.

$193.6 million

SCI Engineers & Constructors Inc. (Calgary)
E.E. Black Ltd. (Honolulu), joint venture

Windward viaduct: One-mile segmental twin viaduct behind state hospital.
Kaneohe interchange: Connecting H-3 with Likelike Highway.

$184.1 million

Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co.
Roadway finish Unit I: Finishing work on Windward side. April 1998 completion.
Roadway finish Unit II: Finishing work on Leeward side. August 1999 completion.
North Halawa Valley highway IA: One-mile section with bridges.
North Halawa Valley highway II: One-mile section with bridges.
Windward highway: Segment on mauka boundary of Ho'omaluhia park.
Halawa quarry viaduct mauka: Section through Hawaiian Cement quarry.
Halawa interchange final phase: Ramp upgrading.

$108.5 million

Hanging Lake (Colorado)
E.E. Black Ltd. (Honolulu), joint venture

Haiku approach and tunnels: Haiku portion of tunnel.

$89.2 million

H-3 Tunnelers, joint venture
Halawa approach and tunnels: Halawa portion of tunnel.

$72.4 million

E.E. Black Ltd. (Honolulu)
Animal quarantine station replacement.
Hospital rock tunnels: 550-foot cut-and-cover tunnel near state hospital.
Halawa quarry viaduct makai: Section over animal quarantine station.
Haiku Valley bridges: Next to Haiku tunnel portal.
North Halawa Valley access road: Five-mile road to Halawa tunnel portal.

$37 million

Transdyn Controls (California)
Tunnel system: Furnish and install system components.
Tunnel ventilation and fans

$12.6 million

Frank Coluccio Construction Co. (Kapolei)

Trans-Koolau exploratory tunnel: One-mile tunnel to gather rock and soil information.

$2 million

Oahu Construction Co. Ltd.
Halawa Jail Access Road. May 1999 completion.

Source: State Department of Transportation


Native Hawaiians see freeway as a sacrilege.
Most archaeological surveys are still due.
The Trans-Koolau tunnels: A full-page color graphic.

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