By Jack Truesdale
The state’s latest efforts to fix a troubled stretch of Farrington Highway in Makaha are angering some local residents.
The state Department of Transportation in 2021 began replacing two bridges near Makaha Beach that the state considers most urgently in need of repair, but residents now are worried that a contractor’s recent installation of small rock dams in the stream beds below both bridges could cause flooding to neighborhoods or damage to the reef.
Farrington Highway turns into West Oahu’s last northbound road at Makaha Beach Park, a juncture where heavy rain and big winter waves threaten human-made structures. The two bridges, dubbed 3 and 3-A, were built in 1937 and provide the only way out for people living to the north.
The DOT awarded construction companies more than $21 million to replace the bridges with prefabricated steel structures. The company with the majority $19 million contract, Grace Pacific LLC, constructed “rock check dams” downstream of the structures, in what are now dry stream beds. The rocks are bigger than a fist and altogether span the width of the streams, just before the dunes.
In a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, DOT spokesperson Shelly Kunishige said the replacement project is “in conformance with federal and state guidelines and industry best practice for both highway and bridges” and that “all required environmental and hydraulic studies and permits have been completed and approved.”
Kunishige stressed the urgency of the bridges’ replacement. “The wood structures are nearing the end of their structural life, could be load restricted at any time due their condition, and could cut off the leeward coast west of the bridges if they failed,” she wrote.
“The check dams are designed to prevent sediment washout among other environmental protective measures,” J. Scott Peterson, a project manager for Grace Pacific LLC, wrote in an email obtained by the Star- Advertiser. Peterson cited “State directives” for installing the dams and wrote that they “allow for controlled in-stream work” and are “part of our Storm Water Pollution Prevent Plans.”
The DOT statement explained that the dams were temporarily constructed “to prevent construction debris and silt to be carried out of the project area by stream flow during construction. These embankments are for construction purposes only, and the areas will be returned to their previous condition at the end of the project.” The statement continued, “Contractors are directed to remove best management practices and any materials that may pose a risk in a storm immediately to avoid the situations the community is concerned about.”
“In the event of a severe weather event, both dams can be rapidly removed or reduced to facilitate increased water flow,” Peterson wrote in his email. Reached by phone, Peterson declined to comment.
That explanation doesn’t cut it with the residents who’ve spent much of their lives closely observing Makaha Beach.
Both bridges are in a Special Flood Hazard Area, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency defines as “an area that will be inundated by the flood event having a 1-percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year,” also known as a 100-year flood.
“History has shown that the stream there,” under the southern bridge, “will back up and flood housing right across Farrington Highway. Now with these dams, for sure homes are going to get flooded back there,” said Robert “Bunky” Bakutis, a Waianae resident for 50 years and a surfer. “Even if they don’t and the river breaks through those rocks, they’re going to ruin our reef and break it apart,” Bakutis said, sitting on his pickup truck’s tailgate at Makaha Beach on a recent morning.
“What is the sense of doing this project when it really should be back there?” he said, pointing mauka.
Bakutis was alluding to West side residents advocating for decades for the state to move Farrington Highway inland. Their concerns have been for the safety of beachgoers crossing the highway to access park bathrooms, the highway’s own survival in the face of rising seas, and the very existence of Makaha Beach as the road “hardening” the coastline leads to further sand erosion.
A 1998 master plan for Makaha called for the road’s mauka relocation, citing a 1985 Army Corps of Engineers report that focused on protecting Farrington Highway. “This will increase recreational use, expand the beach, provide additional parking, eliminate highway repairs due to the beach erosion and storm waves and ensure access in and out of the west end of the island of Oahu,” the 1998 plan reads.
After the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization spent more than $100,000 conducting a feasibility study to assess the highway’s realignment, the study was defunded and canceled in May 2021. The Oahu MPO moved $402,268 intended for the study to a transportation analysis at Ala Moana.
“This study is being proposed for cancellation so that Oahu MPO may fund higher priority work elements. In addition, Oahu MPO is focused on the completion of federally required work products and does not have the staff capacity to complete this study,” the organization wrote in a presentation. The DOT said then that the study was “being tabled until construction funding is available.”
“They’re basically forcing their plans on the community,” Waianae’s state Rep. Cedric Gates said upon arriving at the beach. The DOT’s recent action “hasn’t necessarily been reflective of the community’s will,” he said.
Legendary waterman Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana arrived. “They so smart they forget to do something besides build,” Keaulana said. “If you want to come here and do something, talk to people who been here a long time,” he said.
Keaulana and Bakutis both know firsthand the ocean’s power and its ability to wipe out structures, like the bathhouse at Makaha Beach taken out in 1983. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported in 1996, “The bathhouse resisted Hurricane Iwa’s wind and wave assault in November 1982, but the following February a giant west swell finally toppled the rest of the once-proud bathhouse.”
Keaulana and Bakutis worried that the road could meet a similar fate. According to them, building a “temporary” bridge replacement would only reduce the urgency and delay the permanent fix residents want: moving the road inland.
The DOT disputed this concern in its statement, saying, “The replacement of these structures has no bearing on the realignment of Farrington Highway, and the DOT is still applying for federal discretionary grants with the support of the community to help cover the cost of the proposed project. Even after realignment, the existing roadway and the bridges that connect them would likely be retained as park/beach access road. The realignment, if funded today, would take a minimum of 7 years to deliver considering the environmental permits necessary through sensitive areas, the design of the new route to minimize impacts to the environment, and construction through undisturbed property. We do not believe it prudent to risk losing the existing bridges by delaying the bridge replacement project that long especially when the bridge project does not exclude the realignment.”
State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents the Leeward side, thinks the bridge replacement is necessary. “There’s a real concern that if it gives way, everyone past that bridge will be trapped,” she said. “The DOT is doing it for safety.”