Expansion of Kahului Airport Divides the Valley Isle

posted in: February 1992 | 0

To grow or not to grow?

That question is at the heart of a dispute sparked by proposals from the state Department of Transportation to expand the runway and make other alterations to the state-owned airport at Kahului, Maui.

Many stalwarts of the island’s business sector, including the Maui Business Council, the Maui Hotel Association, the Maui Chamber of Commerce, the Maui Visitors Bureau, and the Maui Economic Development Board, have put themselves on record as favoring the expansion plans. Most argue that an augmented airport will be needed to accommodate the growth in tourism that will have to occur if the island’s hotel rooms, restaurants and rental cars are to be filled. They also claim that safety dictates a longer runway.

On one point they are in agreement with opponents of runway expansion: namely, that improvements to the airport will, one way or another, bring about an increase in visitor arrivals to Maui. Where opponents and proponents differ is in their regard of this growth. Maui already suffers from inadequate roads, sewage treatment plants, water supplies, and housing, opponents say. To burden the resident population with the strain of even more visitors is unjustified and unwarranted.

The one party with whom no one seems to agree is the Department of Transportation itself. In its draft environmental impact statement covering a wide array of contemplated airport changes, it claims steadfastly that no matter what is built or unbuilt at the airport, the number of visitors arriving in Maui will be the same. Moreover, DOT officials have taken strong exception to the idea that the changes being considered have any bearing on safety. Since the construction of runway safety zones in 1988, DOT officials say, the Kahului airport is perfectly safe for any and all types of aircraft operating within the airport’s prescribed limits — limits which, however, make it impossible for a jumbo jet to take off with a full load of passengers and fuel sufficient to make it to mainland destinations. A longer runway, by everyone’s account, would make it possible for today’s larger mainland-bound jets to avoid having to stop in Honolulu for fuel.

A Third Way

The actual issues are far more complicated than this simplified description might suggest. Nonetheless, such a general overview may help illustrate one of the more perplexing aspects of the Maui airport controversy: the fact that the Department of Transportation has staked out a position that is not aligned with either proponents or opponents. The DOT’s argument boils down to the claim that with or without a longer runway or a parallel runway, the number of passengers arriving at Kahului through the year 2005 will be identical. Even if an international arrivals facility were built, the DOT argues, the number of expected arrivals would be at most a marginal increase over what can be expected under every other scenario depicted in the draft environmental impact statement.

It might not be far out of line to believe, as many do, that the DOT’s position was the product not so much of any real conviction on anyone’s part in the inelasticity of its forecasts so much as it results from the requirements of Hawai`i’s law on environmental impact statements, Chapter 343. That law requires the authors of such statements to discuss secondary, indirect effects of proposed actions as well as their primary, direct effects — effects not only on the natural environment, but on the social and economic environment as well. By claiming that the visitor forecasts that the DOT has made through the year 2005 will hold whether or not various actions are taken at the airport, and that the airport as it stands (or at least, as it will stand when ongoing construction work is completed) is adequate to accommodate the forecasted traffic, the DOT has apparently attempted to avoid any discussion of impacts related to the anticipated growth in the tourist traffic to Maui for the duration of the project period.

To argue otherwise, the DOT asserts, is tantamount to considering the airport itself as a visitor attraction. The airport, in other words, “does not function as an effective growth management tool,” the draft environmental impact statement claims, “because visitors travel to Maui for its sun, surf, recreational activities and other attractions and not to visit its airport.” And to underscore the truth of this position, the DOT points to the converse situation that occurred at the Hilo airport. Notwithstanding its expansion and the addition of facilities to accommodate international arrivals, “Hilo’s visitor industry has declined,” the DOT notes.

Concerns about growth — how much, when, and where — on the island of Maui are “regional issues” that rest properly with the county, the DOT states. Those wanting to curb growth should more properly direct their efforts to influence policy to the local government, according to the consultants who prepared the draft EIS, and not to the state DOT.

The County General Plan

Notwithstanding this bow to the authority of the county government, the Department of Transportation has been proceeding with its airport expansion plans contrary to the express wishes of the Maui County Council. In approving an update to the Maui General Plan, the council went on record last September as favoring a ban on the internationalization of the Kahului airport and opposing any extension of the existing 7,000-foot-long runway.

When this particular item was proposed for inclusion in the general plan, Maui residents responded with an outpouring of strong feelings. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people turned out for public hearings. Many hundreds more wrote the County Council.

Both opponents and proponents made it easy for their partisans to weigh in on the debate. Dozens of workers from the Ka`anapali Beach Hotel in West Maui sent in hand-written letters conveying, in almost identical language, concerns over the safety of the existing runway and stating that, if any accident were to occur at the airport, they would “hold council members responsible.” At the Westin Maui, workers were given a form letter to sign, and at least 59 of them did so, telling the county council: “A lot of us on Maui are concerned about crowded roads, limited sewers, water, and a lack of housing. I also feel that way, but I don’t blame it on the airport.”

On the other side, a coalition of three groups opposed to airport expansion – Maui Tommorow, Hui Alanui O Makena, and the Maui Air Traffic Association – published a clip-and-send-in form letter in The Maui News. Hundreds of Mauians used that to express to the County Council their support for including a lid on airport growth in the general plan update.

If one looks only to the formula responses, the balance of opinion falls squarely on the side of opponents of airport expansion. A look at the testimony and letters beyond that, however, shows a community divided along rather clear lines of demarcation. Almost all of the business people — real estate salespeople, hotel managers, others in the petty bourgeoisie — who sent in comments on the matter were pushing hard against including any limit on airport expansion. Politicians prominent at the state level (notably Maui’s own Senator Mamoru Yamasaki, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and his opposite number in the House of Representatives, Joe Souki, chairman of the House Finance Committee) urged council members to back off. However, almost everyone else (apart from the hotel workers mentioned earlier) was vehemently in favor of curbing airport growth in the general plan. The constant theme in their letters and testimony was that Maui cannot deal with the present level of tourism on the island, much less handle an increase such as might be expected if the airport’s runway expansion, its internationalization, or both, were to be effected.

Home Rule?

On September 6, 1991, the County Council approved an update to the Maui County general plan for the 1990s, in which the policy with regard to the Kahului airport was described thusly: “Prohibit internationalization and maintain current and future runway lengths at no more than 7,000 feet.” At least theoretically, the policy is to guide the decisions of county agencies on such matters as zoning and land use, activities in the Special Management Area (that is, areas near the coast), water and sewage services.

For almost any alteration of the airport, the state Department of Transportation will need to obtain a county permit. Yet the DOT so far has not dealt with the conflict between its airport development plans and county policy as expressed in the general plan update. The draft environmental impact statement speaks of this conflict, to be sure, but leaves it unresolved.

Eighteen days after council approval of the general plan update, and before the public had the chance to review the draft EIS for the Kahului airport alterations proposed by the DOT, the head of the DOT’s airports division, Owen Miyamoto, met with Perry White, chief representative of Belt Collins and Associates, the consultant having overall responsibility for preparing the DEIS and other planning documents related to the Kahului airport. In a letter memorializing the topics covered at that meeting, White wrote: “It is my understanding that overriding the county will take special authorization from the state Legislature. The articles that I have read in the newspaper appeared to contain mixed reports. They represented the governor as saying there would be no attempt to override the County Council, while the director of the DOT was quoted as saying that the state might go to the Legislature for an exemption, just as it has apparently done in the past for harbor projects.”

“As we discussed,” he wrote Miyamoto, “the fact that the current DOT six-year CIP [capital improvement program] budget does not include funds for any runway extension … makes it appear that there is little advantage in directly opposing the county at this time. To do so would arouse significant public controversy without yielding compensating benefits. A compromise position could be to recommend:

“Strengthening the existing pavement of Runway 2-20 and extending it to 8,500 feet as soon as possible… This would put DOT on record concerning what is absolutely essential without directly contravening the general plan;

“Extending the existing runway 2-20 to 9,600 feet during the second 10 years of the airport master plan if detailed market studies then show that the increased traffic it would generate warrants the cost;

“Providing an 8,500 foot long parallel runway (or at least 7,000 feet) after the year 2000…”

White and Miyamoto also seem to have come to a decision regarding other and less controversial aspects of the Kahului airport plan unrelated to runway length. In particular, improvements that the DOT had promised to make to nearby Kanaha Beach Park would be sized down and postponed until after 2000, according to White. Also, a base yard for Maui County that was proposed to be built near the “ground transportation subdivision” (that is, rental car operations) would be relocated “closer to Kanaha Pond,” an area on the airport grounds that includes habitat for two endangered species of Hawaiian waterbirds.

That was not to be all. In October, the County Council was notified that there would be no money for construction of an airport access road. A fall-off in revenues from the duty-free shops’ concession, combined with increased costs of construction of a people-mover system and new international terminal at the Honolulu airport, meant that the DOT would not be able to finance the road or the Kanaha Beach Park improvements, the council was informed.

A Package Deal

County officials were not pleased on hearing this. As Planning Director Brian Miskae wrote to the new DOT director, Rex Johnson, in January, “This roadway was planned by DOT, designed by DOT and was the subject of a petition for a special management area permit by DOT. It was therefore reasonable for the Maui Planning Commission to assume that the roadway would be constructed in the near future. On this premise, projects have been approved fronting Dairy Road,” one of the major thoroughfares near the airport.

“The commission,” Miskae added, “feels that to allocate funds for the convenience of Honolulu International Airport users at the expense of the safety of Maui citizens is not a responsible action on the part of state government.”

In November, Goro Hokama, chairman of the County Council’s committee of the whole, asked that the Transportation Department be dealt with outside the context of the larger airport master plan, thus allowing the 1992 Legislature to allocate fund for those projects separately. The DOT refused to go along with this, however. Johnson, the DOT director, noted that his department had been forced to include the roadway in the EIS as part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought by environmentalists.

Joe Souki, a force to be reckoned with in the state Legislature, has stated he will work to get the $47 million for the roadway put into the DOT’s budget as a separate item. That means Maui will probably get its access road, without it being tied necessarily to other changes that the DOT wants to make at the Kahului airport.

Yet the ill will caused by what some perceive to be the DOT’s peevishness or vindictiveness remains. In months to come, as the DOT must prepare responses to the draft EIS, publish its belated Kahului Airport Master Plan Update — a document that many feel should have preceded the EIS — and develop a related airport noise abatement program, the seeds of mistrust that the DOT has sown may be expected to bear bitter fruit indeed.

Volume 2, Number 8 February 1992