DOT’s Past Construction Success

There is a lot of conversation going on about Honolulu’s rail transit system. As mentioned, it’s the biggest public works project ever for Hawaii and will cost billions of dollars. Hawaii’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has a history of massive construction projects. Contrary to popular belief, most of them were works of art.

Some of my early recollections include the years it took to build the Pali Highway tunnels. Honolulu-bound tunnels opened in 1957, Windward-bound in 1961. Wilson Tunnel on Likelike Highway (a city project) opened in 1960. State-project freeways followed: H-1, H-2 and H-3, and another tunnel through the Koolaus.

The pros and cons of each project were hotly debated by politicians and residents, but the projects were built despite every objection.

Of all the public works projects undertaken by the DOT, one stands out as a major danger signal to overly optimistic politics.

Looking at DOT’s history of accomplishments, a couple of things are obvious. First, the mass rail project will be built. Second, it will cost more than budgeted. Finally, it will be built with many companies and consultants from around the world. It’s a good bet that politicians’ greatest chore will be to give it a name. If it is really successful, everyone will want their name on it. If not, it will be a long time before anyone claims it. Example, the Tets Hirono vs. John Burns Tunnel.

Meanwhile, DOT history does furnish some evidence that caution is advised for unforeseen problems. Case in point: The Wahiawa Airplane Bridge. It has a special place of honor in the annals of transportation projects. It was built by the 1,399th Engineer Battalion with leftover metal landing strips from the old Kahuku air strip (today’s Kahuku golf course). The series of holes on the strips contributed to the unique sound made by vehicle tires – a kind of buzzing sound. Eventually, the “Airplane Bridge” had to be replaced to accommodate more traffic generated by Wheeler Air Field and Schofield Barracks. The planning started in 1974, by the DOT.

It was a challenge from the beginning, according to people who worked on the project, because of the water level of the lake and the heavy rainfall in the area.

They hired the services of bridge consultants Wiss, Janney and Associates for help in solving the problem. To say the construction encountered great difficulties is an understatement. They recommended that the concrete footing be pumped into the columns using the highly vaunted Tremine system, which required concrete be pumped underwater into the columns. More than 60 trucks of concrete were lost, and construction was halted for more than a year as different schemes were looked at and rejected. It was such a mystery because the concrete wouldn’t harden; samples were sent to Illinois for analysis. Another consultant firm was brought in to correct the pumping process.

The point is, DOT did not surrender to the elements or to fickle concrete. The Wilson or Kaukonahua Bridge was completed in 1985. So when you think for a minute that DOT is going to give up on the rail project, think again – they don’t give up that easily.

The residents of Wahiawa should be proud of their bridge. Consider this: The Golden Gate bridge only took four-and-a-half years to build. It only cost $35 million to connect the San Francisco peninsula to Marin County, and only handles 120,000 cars and trucks a day. The Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles in length. The Wilson Bridge is less than 110 yards.

One other notable fact about Wahiawa’s bridge. More suicides occur on the Golden Gate Bridge than any other place in the world.