Sounds Like a Good Time to Skip the Back Road to Hana.

At least four repair projects are planned for sections of Piilani Highway in the vicinity of Kaupo, and one of them — the repair of Waiopai Bridge — has the remote community concerned because work could close the road for a month or more, according to Jonathan Starr, a board member of the Kaupo Community Association.

The county Department of Public Works reported that the extent of the anticipated road closure has not been determined, although the county plans to schedule construction for the summer of 2018.

Located between Mileposts 28 and 29 on Piilani Highway, the bridge has undergone recent structural inspections that show it’s in need of deck, railing and guardrail replacements, and repairs are needed at the bridge girders and abutments, officials said.

The Maui County Council has approved $1.5 million for the project, which is being designed and has not been awarded to a contractor.

Starr said there’s a detour road, built around 1982, that would allow residents — but not visitors on buses or in rental cars — to bypass the construction site.

Kaupo resident Helen Nielsen stands next to a sinkhole on Piilani Highway in April. Maui County has hired a coastal engineer to evaluate a section of the highway in Kalepa between Mileposts 38 and 39 where ocean waves have badly undermined the highway, making it prone to sinkholes. -- JONATHAN STARR photo

If the one-lane, 40-foot-long bridge were shut down for a month or more, without local access to the area, then residents face being unable to drive to school or work or, in an emergency, a lack of access to island hospitals, Starr said.

“The community doesn’t want to see the road closed around the clock for a month or two,” he said. “There are real health and safety issues . . . especially if Hana Highway is closed.”

Closing the road would disrupt lives for residents and “may even cause loss of life,” he said.

Access to the detour road on the ocean side of the project could be limited to residents only with a gate and a key provided to them, he said. A bulldozer could create a passable road for residents. Another suggestion was to keep the alternate road open for a couple of hours per day with monitors to make sure the river isn’t running and that vehicles could pass through.

The Public Works Department had no comment about the suggestion to allow resident access to the detour road.

Starr said he expects there will be a community meeting in October at which the Public Works director or deputy director will address the community.

He said he’s pleased the county has been talking about the project in advance with members of the community. “It has become a collaborative process, which is wonderful,” he said.

Other projects include:

• Piilani landslide repairs at Nuanualoa Gulch. The Public Works Department reports that work is scheduled to begin in October and to continue through the spring of next year on a $2 million project at Milepost 37 to build a concrete retaining wall with tie-back anchors and a micropile foundation to reduce erosion at the roadway’s shoulder. Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. has been awarded the contract. Work will require the road to be closed from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, except county holidays. Contractor AECOM designed the project for approximately $410,000, the department reported.

Starr said the roadway in the vicinity of the project area between Kaupo and Kipahulu is “very narrow” and would be “impassable” if left unrepaired. There have been jersey barriers at the site with cones and flashing lights for eight to 10 months, he said.

• Manawainui Gulch guard-rails. The county is seeking funding for the project to install 250 feet of guardrails at the roadway shoulder about 400 feet west of Manawainui Bridge. The work will be done by a contractor as part of a countywide guardrail improvement project that will include other areas. The project is being designed, and road closure plans have not been finalized, although closings are likely to be intermittent during construction, county officials said.

Starr said the guardrails would protect motorists from going over a 600- to 700-foot-high cliff along the highway.

• Kalepa repairs. The county has hired a coastal engineer to evaluate a section of the highway between Mileposts 38 and 39, officials said. A design alternative will be selected after reviewing the engineer’s recommendations. Meanwhile, the department’s Highways Division continues to monitor roadway conditions.

Starr said waves have badly undermined the road in the project area, and it’s prone to sinkholes where the county has laid plates over open parts of the road.

“It’s hollowed out under the roadway,” he said. “Strong surf pulls rocks underneath, and a hole forms underneath.”

The cliff area is in National Park Service land, and it includes caves and burials that preclude cutting into the hill to widen the highway, he said.

What’s likely is that the project will involve pouring concrete offshore, filling in boulders and replacing and fortifying the road, which was done in the early 1980s and in 1995, Starr said.

Workers have lost their lives on such a project, he said. “It’s heavy and hairy work,” he said.

Starr added that he understands the work is expected to cost from $20 million to $30 million.

More than 60 people attended a July 22 Kaupo Community Association meeting at Kaupo School with Public Works officials, contractors and consultants to discuss the highway repair projects and to express concern about increasing traffic congestion, Starr said.

The need for Piilani Highway repairs has grown in recent years with more visitor — even “bumper-to-bumper” — traffic with large buses and thousands of rental cars, he said.

“It’s different than it was even a couple of years ago,” he said.

Many residents try to avoid traveling the road during the day, he said.

* Managing Editor Lee Imada contributed to this report. Brian Perry can be reached at

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