Time To End ‘One Way Out’ Roads

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 22, 2006
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The public is anxiously awaiting an explanation of what caused a dozen telephone poles on Farrington Highway to collapse recently. The majority of the poles belong to the Hawaiian Electric Company, which, of course, is the expert on the poles’ longevity.

HECO has been very cooperative in providing information about the poles it plants around the island. We know that some of the poles that collapsed may have been newly installed with a wire-mesh sock in the ground to keep termites away. We also know the poles usually last 30 years, depending on their exposure to the elements. They are also termite-treated and designed to withstand winds of at least 56 mph.

Right now the experts are trying to determine whether it was termite damage or some other factor that played a role in the surprising collapse of the poles. It’s surprising not because the poles collapsed, but because of the circumstances surrounding the incident. Eyewitnesses said they heard a large gust of wind like a tornado and “they fell like dominoes.”

The National Weather Service reported that the winds on the Waianae Coast were blowing at 35 mph at the time of the incident and there was no evidence of any tornado activity in the area.

It’s hard to imagine how a gust of wind could topple a dozen utility poles almost simultaneously, even if they were infested with termites. The probable answer is the poles fell onto the highway because they are all connected to each other with all kinds of communication equipment. Maybe it was a combination of the weather, the added weight of just one more cable and some-extra tough termite action.

Simply put, it’s another mystery for HECO to unravel for the unsuspecting general public. As expected, HECO immediately conducted an inspection of all the poles on Farrington Highway to alleviate any fears the Waianae Coast residents might be harboring in the wake of the disaster. And while they do that, the politicians who gather votes from the Leeward Coast might want to re-examine some ancient issues area residents have been asking for decades, like underground lines (eliminating poles all together) and a second access road into and out of the Waianae Coast.

It really doesn’t matter what reason HECO comes up with for the incident. Bad weather and strong winds will always cause power outages, and strong winds will continue to knock down utility poles. Those are things residents can rationalize. What’s hard to rationalize is they always seem to happen on the Leeward or Windward coasts. As sure as you are reading this column, when the next big rain hits Oahu, the road going through Waikane on the Windward side is going to be closed because of heavy flooding, and the traffic will be diverted around the other way because of flooded streams and bridges. Equally certain is any road closure due to flooding or a bad traffic accident will force the “one way in, one way out” traffic flow and cause horrific traffic jams and misery.

HECO crews have always been wonderful when it comes to fixing downed power lines and getting the power turned on for its customers. But when it comes to acceptable, believable excuses for why the power went off or why the poles fell down, it has almost always come up short with any evidence that the Leeward and Windward coasts aren’t shortchanged when it comes to alleviating the ravages of Mother Nature.

It might be that the elected officials from the Leeward and Windward Coast don’t have the clout or interest to protect the residents in their districts. It might also be time to elect a mayor for each disadvantaged area. In that way the problems of living safely every day could be taken for granted. Everything from potholes, flood control, trash pickup and waste-water management could have some accountability.

It may be time to end the “one way in, one way out” theory of road construction. It may also be time to give up trying to build utility poles to withstand tornados and Category 5 hurricanes and put all future utility lines underground vaults.

Naturally, there are those who will argue, correctly, that the cost of that kind of infrastructure would be prohibitive. And while that may be true, it’s still a lot better than worrying about a telephone pole crushing your car, a rock slide crushing your home or being swept out to sea by flood waters.

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