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Daniel K. Inouye Highway: New segment of Saddle Road opens

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

On what would have been Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s 89th birthday, Big Island residents celebrated opening a new section of Saddle Road.

The road – a vital link between the east and west communities of the island – has long been a dangerous, twisty strip of crumbling asphalt that bisects Pohakuloa Training Area.

However, with Saturday’s dedication and renaming of a 10.27-mile stretch to the western end, the island is brought closer together and will benefit in a myriad social and economic ways.

The Saddle Road — officially Route 200 — re-alignment hooks up with Mamalahoa Highway (Route 190) about 3 miles south of Waikoloa Road. Previously, the two routes intersected about 5 miles north of Waikoloa Road.

The re-alignment cuts the Hilo-Kona commute by about 15-20 minutes. This means a huge savings in man-hours spent on the road for island businesses and also means workers will be able to spend more time with their families.

Built on an old trail so decrepit that rental car companies deemed it off-limits, Saddle Road has been a top priority for residents and highway improvements have been on the island’s wish list for more than two decades.

The U.S. Department of the Army constructed the original one-lane Saddle Road in 1942 to provide access to its military training facilities located in the “saddle” between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It also provides the only paved access to the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, Pohakuloa Training Area Base, and Mauna Kea State Park, as well as access to public lands and forest areas for hunting, gathering and ranching.

Inouye, who died in December, commissioned a task force made up of island residents about 20 years ago and the members have pushed the issue with the ferocity and tenacity of a hungry bulldog.

Marni Herkes, who first drove the road about 60 years ago, joked she was delighted to still be alive for Saturday’s dedication.

“This is a very, very wonderful day. It’s been 20 years since I started questioning: What about the west side,” she said. “People who have shied away from Saddle Road because of it’s dangerous reputation will now come out just to see the new road.”

Although Herkes cautioned motorists to continue driving carefully, she said, “This will save lives. I’m just thrilled. I don’t think I’ll stop smiling for weeks.”

Herkes was among more than one dozen members of the task force recognized for their diligence. Task force chief Walter Kunitake praised his colleagues and noted the road would not have been completed without Inouye’s vision, know-how and tenacity in securing funds.

Serving on the task force, Kunitake said, has been an “extreme pleasure and privilege.”

Also in attendance was Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who as a U.S. Congressman, worked with Inouye to ensure the federal funds were made available.

The total cost approached $290 million. Construction funding came through the U.S. Department of the Army Defense Access Road and Ecosystem Management Programs, U.S. Congress and the state Department of Transportation.

Abercrombie noted there once was a time when the road ‘was an optimistic idea rather than a concrete idea’ and recalled his first experience traveling along Saddle Road as one of the most memorable and frightening of his life.

“Does the word fog strike anybody?” Abercrombie said, adding that he asked driver, “’What happens if we break down?’ It was not comforting for somebody to say, ‘Hopefully we’ll be found.’”

He said he hopes the new road will offer up a less slightly different driving experience.

“Hopefully, now it will be much less adventurous traveling Saddle Road,” he said.

He also thanked the task force for its decades of commitment, sense of community and perseverance, and remarked that the social and economic impacts will give the Big Island a boost.

Inouye’s widow, Irene, was on hand for the dedication and re-naming ceremony. The brown and white sign designating the new section as Daniel K. Inouye Highway marked a ‘very special and meaningful’ tribute to her late husband.

“I can think of no better birthday present than to have this be opened and named after him today,” she said.

Mayor Billy Kenoi lightened the mood with his comments.

He recalled Inouye told him the road had been planned before Kenoi was born, but was determined it be finished in Kenoi’s lifetime.

Kenoi said while he understood no-one would actually refer to the road as the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, he hoped it would become island jargon to say you were going over the ‘DKI.’

The mayor also shared a story that he said shows Inouye still has influence over the highway bearing his name.

Inouye had told Kenoi his mission as mayor should be to bring the island together.

“He said: Your task is to bring that island together. To make sure that it doesn’t become two counties, that it’s not east or west, or worse, east vs. west. and that road goes a long to doing that. Time has been cut significantly, by a third,” Kenoi said. “This is the greatest improvement in transportation on this island in my lifetime. The economic factor is huge. I just want to thank Sen. Inouye, because I won’t have too many other opportunities like this.

As part of that effort, Kenoi regularly schedules full cabinet meetings in Kona.

One day last month, Kenoi got a late start heading over for a Kona meeting. Most of his cabinet members were at least 30 minutes ahead of him.

Kenoi said he called the project manager and asked if he might be able to pass along the new highway, which was finished but was still awaiting Saturday’s dedication to coincide with Inouye’s birthday.

Permission granted, Kenoi cruised the new highway and arrived ahead of the cabinet members who left Hilo first.

Kenoi said he was confident and comfortable, and thought asking for special permission worked in his favor until he got a text:

‘Mayor Billy, is that your car all covered with tar in the county parking lot?’

Kenoi said he spent the rest of the day and several hundred dollars cleaning and repairing his vehicle.

He laughed and did a stand-up comic dead-on impression of his mentor: ‘Billy, you might be mayor, but there are no shortcuts.’

Later, Kenoi said he recognizes the impact the re-alignment will have on businesses and families.

“Every segment and phase has improved our quality of life,” he said. “This is so much easier for our families and our businesses.

The existing portion of Saddle Road will remain open. Drivers will need to come to a stop before entering traffic on the new road.

Construction of the last remaining portion of Saddle Road project on the east side will be completed as funds become available.

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Police are urging motorists to be careful on the new road and warn they will be looking out for speeding vehicles.

Police will conduct education by way of “speed boards,” devices that provide a digital display of approaching vehicles’ speed.

Additionally, officers will conduct speed enforcement as part of the two-prong approach aimed at seeking compliance with the posted speed limits.

Hawaii 24/7 has learned (but has not confirmed) the first speeding ticket was issued the first minute the highway was open.

A Kona woman was driving from Hilo and was ticketed for driving 73 mph.

Her ticket is timed at 3:01 p.m. … 1 minute after the highway was open to the public.

Drive slowly and drive safely, friends!

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SCR 43: REQUESTING THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION TO DESIGNATE, WHEN APPROPRIATE, ROUTE 200 ON THE ISLAND OF HAWAII AS THE DANIEL K. INOUYE LEGACY HIGHWAY.

WHEREAS, the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye was born in Hawaii on September 7, 1924; and

WHEREAS, Senator Daniel K. Inouye volunteered for combat with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, earning several honors, including the bronze star, the purple heart, and the medal of honor; and

WHEREAS, after being honorably discharged with the rank of captain, Senator Daniel K. Inouye was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1959 and subsequently to the United States Senate in 1962; and

WHEREAS, in 2009, Senator Daniel K. Inouye became chairperson of the United States Senate Appropriations Committee; and

WHEREAS, at the time of his death, Senator Daniel K. Inouye was Senate President Pro Tempore, having achieved the distinction of being the second longest-serving United States senator during his fifty-year tenure with the United States Senate; and

WHEREAS, Senator Daniel K. Inouye helped to create a roadmap of success for Hawaii infrastructure by obtaining much-needed federal funds for Hawaii projects; and

WHEREAS, Route 200, known locally as Saddle Road, traverses the width of the Island of Hawaii, from downtown Hilo to its junction with Hawaii Route 190 near Waimea; and

WHEREAS, currently, the jurisdiction of Route 200 is unsettled, with the federal government, the State, and the County of Hawaii all having interests in various sections of the road as improvements are made and repairs are completed; and

WHEREAS, upon completion of the improvements and repairs, the State will have sole jurisdiction over Route 200; and

WHEREAS, the completion of Route 200 serves to represent both literally and symbolically the work of the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye—the physical bridging together of East and West Hawaii and the bridging of the bonds between people, local and from the mainland, and at the federal, state, county, and private sector levels, with the aim of completing a single civic goal; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the Senate of the Twenty-seventh Legislature of the State of Hawaii, Regular Session of 2013, the House of Representatives concurring, that the Department of Transportation is requested to recognize the significant accomplishments of the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye by designating Route 200, also known as Saddle Road, as the Daniel K. Inouye Legacy Highway; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that certified copies of this Concurrent Resolution be transmitted to the Governor, the Director of Transportation, the Mayor of the County of Hawaii, and the Director of the County of Hawaii Department of Public Works.

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