Getting Kids to School in Kihei
by Tom Yamachika, President, Tax Foundation Hawaii
Let’s start with a simple proposition. Taxpayers pay our government to get things done. Taxpayers don’t pay our government agencies to fight each other so that nothing gets done.
We focus this week on Kihei, Maui, where our Department of Education (DOE) has been trying to open a new, $245 million, high school primarily for Kihei. It’s called Kulanihakoi High School. It’s built, and has been built for some time, but it can’t open.
Why? Lots of families live makai of Piilani Highway (which is a busy, four lane highway) around Kulanihakoi Street. The school was built mauka of Piilani Highway. To get to the school, kids now have to cross the highway. Concerns about the safety of having kids compete with cars here prompted the State Land Use Commission to conclude, ten years ago, that a “grade-separated crossing,” like an overpass or an underpass, needed to be built.
Over the years, DOE appeared to go along with the requirement. In early 2020, when it approached Maui County for permits, it said that the design of the pedestrian overpass was already started and projected for it to be built in 2022 and 2023.
But in 2021, DOE did an about-face. Instead, it went back to the Land Use Commission to ask it to change its previous order to allow it to open the school without a pedestrian crossing, citing studies (paid for by guess who) presumably showing that the pedestrian crossing was not needed. This attracted objections and demonstrations from the public, and the Commission denied the DOE’s request.
At the same time, the DOE and the Department of Transportation spent $16 million on a four-lane roundabout with flashing lights in front of the school to slow traffic down and thereby eliminate (in DOE’s mind, perhaps) the need for an overpass. County officials were skeptical and arranged a meeting in late August 2022 with council members and other community members. No one from the DOE showed up to the meeting, however.
In February 2023, DOE seemed to accede to the overpass, presenting some rough sketches to the community. The agency said it would ask the Legislature for emergency funding to build the overpass. Sen. Angus McKelvey, who represents the area, said that he added $15 million for the project in the Senate’s draft of the plan, but that funding didn’t make it into the state budget. It isn’t clear why the funding request was deleted; perhaps it was because that wouldn’t be enough. The Governor’s Office issued a release saying that its construction would cost more than $25 million.
In March, Gov. Green announced that the state and county governments had reached a deal allowing the school to open in exchange for requiring the DOE to implement a temporary pedestrian safety plan, including shuttles for students walking to and from school, until the new pedestrian overpass is completed. The school is now slated to open in August.
Let me now ask this question: If the DOE had listened to the Land Use Commission ten years ago and had not put tons of resources into studies and legal briefs trying to get the Commission to change its mind, how many millions of taxpayer dollars could have been saved – by the DOE, the Department Transportation, Maui County government, and even the Governor’s Office?