IMR: 1997: December: 13 -- Saturday, 8:12 p.m.
Our Apartment, Waikiki, Hawai`i
This afternoon, after dropping Jen off at work and before William got started on his 30-page Japanese literature paper, we decided to take a spin on the H-3.

The history of this highway is too long to adequately summarize... but I'm going to try anyway. It's been in the works for 37 years -- since statehood -- and after dozens of delays, protests (over ancient Hawaiian sites along the route), last-minute redesigns and construction accidents, it finally opened on Friday.

It connects Pearl City (and its assorted military installations) to Kane`ohe (and its Marine corps base) on the Windward side, a route that required a mile-long tunnel boring straight through the Ko`olau mountain range.

[ H-3 Sign ]It'll have a place in the annals of American transportation history as quite literally the most expensive highway ever built. It cost over a billion dollars, or (according to one news report) about $1,000 for each man, woman and child on the island.

The H-3 has always been mired in controversy. Since day one -- in addition to NIMBY whines -- archaeologists and Hawaiian groups maintained that building it would destroy ancient Hawaiian heiau, or spiritual temples and other religious strucures.

Sen. Daniel Inouye had to push a bill exempting the project from federal environmental requirements through the U.S. congress before it could continue. (Some are calling it "Danny's Highway.")

Work continued to be blocked by frequent sit- and chant-in protests, and the flap over one particular heiau deep in Halawa Valley led the state to back down and reroute the highway around it in mid-construction... a concession that cost millions.

The Hawaiian groups weren't satisfied. Venomous declarations by Hawaiian leader Mililani Trask filled the airwaves. Eventually, it was said that the whole freeway was cursed. A freak collapse that killed three construction workers a few months later seemed to prove it.

As its opening drew near, various fun-runs and tours were held. Several groups urged the public not to participate. Thousands did anyway, but in coffee houses and breakrooms there were more than a few who said, "I'm never driving on that thing."

I was one of them. Being part Hawaiian, at times I often sympathized with some of the protesters. But, blame it on journalists' curiosity or skepticism, I couldn't resist.

The onramp from Moanalua freeway is awkwardly squeezed between two much older exits, turning off from the lane that otherwise takes you to the stadium. This end of the H-3 had been finished for some time, a gleaming and unused white ribbon of road winding up into Halawa Valley.

[ H-3 North ]There's only two lanes of traffic in each direction, so it felt a bit cramped compared to its older sisters, H-1 and H-2 (six- and four- lanes wide respectively). And instead industrial districts or residential neighborhoods, the view was of nothing but wild brush and forest.

It was also obvious why the H-3 is called the state's most "high tech" roadway. The standard freeway signage is enhanced with LED displays, which presumably can read "left lane blocked ahead" or "clear for emergency vehicle."

"I bet within a few years, someone's going to use those things to propose to someone," I said.

Eventually, the slope of the surrounding mountains became steeper and the plants turned a darker shade of green. The Harano Tunnels were ahead.

For months I'd been reading about these tunnels, named for one of the principle designers. They have towering entryways that house a gargantuan ventilation vent system and "control centers" where cameras are scanned and signs are set. With fire and carbon monoxide sensors all the way through and a dizzying maze of escape routes and crawlways, the tunnels were described with no less pride than a World War II battleship.

[ H-3 Tunnel ]Frankly, they looked like a World War II battleship. Heck, they looked like gateways into the Death Star. All nearby sign poles and other structures were painted dark grey instead of green, giving the whole area an eerie drabness.

The first thing I noticed going in was that, unlike the Pali and Likelike tunnels, you couldn't see the other end... or any natural light to show there was an end at all. It was considerably wider, too, striped for two lanes of traffic but clearly capable of taking three, maybe even four. The walls were tiled, the whole length lit with orange sodium lights.

There were more fancy light signs inside, with green arrows indicating which lanes were clear. There were also a couple of traffic lights along the way. I'm not sure what those were for.

Only when we came out on the Windward side did I see the awesome view everyone had been raving about. We were right up against the steep Ko`olau mountains -- the same curtain of ridges that takes my breath away during drives through Waimanalo, but much, much closer. I imagined how how precariously perched the highway must look from afar.

The H-3 wound down and around toward Kane`ohe, suspended high above the ground the whole way down. We passed over Likelike Highway, and took in an unparalleled view of the whole Windward side -- Kane`ohe Bay spread out in the distance.

Finally we reached the Kamehameha Highway offramp. We pulled off, rolled under the highway and swung back onto it to head back into town.

I'd thought a lot of the traffic we'd seen were people doing the same thing -- taking a drive for the sake of trying out the new freeway -- but I noticed as we spun back onto the H-3 that most of the people behind us were in fact streaming into Kane`ohe.

[ H-3 Ridge ]I think the view from the southbound Ko`olau approach was the best of all. The mountains above the tunnels are considerably steeper and more imposing than they are on the other side. They make it plainly clear that however impressive the H-3 freeway is, it's still nothing compared to the monuments built by nature.

Also, on the townbound side, the panoramic view of Kane`ohe is even more amazing. I shuddered imagining how far a drop it must be over the side.

William asked, as we descended back toward Pearl Harbor, exactly where the sacred heiau were.

I shrugged. "Somewhere under here, I guess." Then I flinched. I realized that was exactly the kind of statement the Hawaiian groups were dreading.


© Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: · Created: 11 December 1997 · Last Modified: 14 December 1997