The new 6.5-mile segment of Saddle Road is to be dedicated today. It can be seen as the dirt road under construction in this photo. CLICK FOR LARGE
Realigned Saddle Road opens, easing travel across Big Island
HILO » A new 6.5-mile realignment of Saddle Road opens today in what officials describe as an immediate step toward safer cross-island travel and a long-term step toward better unifying East and West Hawaii.
The new section runs from the junction of Saddle Road with the Mauna Kea Access Road, across military land in the Pohakuloa Training Area to Mauna Kea State Park.
Unlike the old Saddle Road alignment through the area, the new route skirts areas where troops train.
A continuation of the new route has already been gouged out of the hillside behind Pohakuloa's camp facilities. When that is finished next year, the dangerous mix of slow-moving military traffic and impatient civilian drivers will be eliminated.
Motorists will find safe driving on a modern roadbed for 6.5 miles in the federal-state-country project, compared with the rest of the 48-mile route, where the sides of the road have so many badly filled potholes that everyone drives down the center, then swerves to the edge for oncoming cars.
In 1937 the unpaved, one-lane Saddle Road intersected the road to Hale Pohaku, which was later extended to the summit of Mauna Kea. The new road segment begins near here. CLICK FOR LARGE
The Army wanted the road fixed in 1987. In 1992 the Army said Saddle Road had 2.5 times as many accidents as comparable roads across the nation.
Mark McGuffie of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board was looking at the long term as he considered today's road opening.
"To bridge the gap is definitely what we're looking for," he said. "We're looking for a more holistic island view."
That means linking fast-growing Kona and South Kohala, with their many jobs, to Hilo and Puna, where the economy is slow and jobs are rare.
From the Army's first wish in 1987 to groundbreaking in 2004, the cost of the whole 48-mile project soared to $220 million.
The cost of the current phase is not clear, since costs are not broken down for each segment. The cost of 16 miles, from the state park back to the 19-mile post, closer to Hilo, is $59 million.
The Army bought the 24,000-acre Keamuku area at the Kona end of the project from Parker Ranch last year, so that segment has to be replanned.
Often described as having been built by the Army during World War II, the current Saddle Road closely follows a 19th-century horse and carriage road. Remnants are still visible.