Answers Can Be Found in Community Managed Access Plan
(HONOLULU, HI April 11, 2022) —The Ha‘ikū Stairs are back on the Honolulu City Council agenda with an increased price tag and unanswered questions. The Friends of Ha‘ikū Stairs (FHS) have learned that the City Council erroneously placed funds for the Stairs’ demolition in the wrong City budget last September. The issue has returned to the Council for official action. Since the Council last voted, the City’s proposed demolition budget has increased 30% to $1,300,000 in less than six months. This increased cost to taxpayers demands explanation, especially given the overwhelming testimony in favor of keeping the Stairs last fall—with over 90% of public comments opposing demolition. Further unanswered questions concern impacts on endangered species and engineering challenges related to erosion control and potential landslides. The City’s own
planning documents call for multiple measures to mitigate the impacts of demolition whose costs remain entirely unaccounted for. The cumulative costs of these necessary measures could easily dwarf the current demolition budget. Meanwhile, a new, community-driven, comprehensive managed access plan has emerged that FHS urges City Council members to consider.
FHS’s independent analysis of the City’s demolition plans raises multiple red flags that suggest that the City has grossly underestimated the actual costs to taxpayers. Until the City has addressed these omissions and fully reckoned with the costs, FHS urges the City Council to pause the demolition funding. “Rushing into removal puts the taxpayer on the hook for an ill-planned project whose costs could easily spiral out of control,” said Sean Pager, FHS president. “Such a premature commitment would be especially tragic now that a new, community-driven managed access solution is on the table that would fully solve the Ha‘ikū Stairs problem at zero cost to the City. We urge the City Council to halt its demolition plans and instead consider the exciting potential for an
environmentally sustainable, culturally respectful solution that preserves public access while bypassing residential neighborhoods.”
FHS believes the failure of the City’s budget to account for the full costs of removal largely spring from inadequacies in the City’s 2019 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS represents the City’s principal attempt to evaluate the costs and challenges associated with removal. The original $1 million removal budget appropriated by the Council last September directly tracked the EIS’s estimated removal costs. This $1 million figure was based solely on the costs of the helicopter operations to physically detach and remove the Stairs modules from the ridgeline. FHS questions this estimate. Nakoa, the very company cited in the EIS, estimated helicopter costs in 2011 as almost triple the EIS figure (See Attached 2011 letter). FHS questions how helicopter costs have declined since then, especially given inflation and skyrocketing gas prices.
Furthermore, the EIS itself makes clear that additional expenditures will be required that go well beyond helicopters. The full extent of these additional costs remains to be evaluated and properly budgeted for. However, a few examples illustrate the EIS’s incomplete accounting:
First, the Ha‘ikū Stairs occupy a critical conservation habitat with federally protected endangered flora and fauna in the immediate vicinity. The EIS explicitly acknowledges that “removal of Ha‘ikū Stairs has the potential to impact endangered plant species.” It also notes potential impacts on endangered native bird species, invertebrates, and bats. The EIS calls for further studies by a qualified biologist to assess these risks and determine appropriate mitigation measures. The City’s failure to undertake such necessary steps and its failure to budget for the costs is concerning. Randall Kennedy, former DNLR natural area manager, said that “if threatened and endangered species are likely to be harmed by the Stairs removal, the City will need to formulate a Habitat Conservation Plan and receive an Incidental Take Permit under both state and federal law before any take happens.” Kennedy commented further that based on his professional experience, “the costs of such planning, permitting, and mitigation measures can easily total well over $1 million.” Going through this process will likely take at least a year before any removal work can begin.
Second: the City removal budget fails to account for the potentially significant engineering challenges to prevent landslides and control erosion. The Ha‘ikū Stairs occupy extremely hostile terrain, with near vertical, exposed cliff faces lashed by pelting rain and up-to-100 mph winds. The
underlying soil and rock is inherently unstable. The EIS itself acknowledges that landslides are known to have occurred in the vicinity of the Haiku Stairs and elsewhere along the Ko’olau Pali and Windward districts.
The EIS suggests erosion issues can be addressed by applying standard grading measures following “best management practices.” Yet, there is nothing standard about working in this harsh, unstable terrain. Access is restricted to helicopter; heavy equipment cannot reach the project site; and weather-related interruptions will pose a constant challenge.
“Ripping a staircase off the side of a steep, rain-soaked mountain will be risky and complicated in myriad ways and may initiate landslides such as those we recently encountered at the Pali Highway tunnels, for example,” said Pager. “Tons of soil and rock have piled up against the stair modules over the decades, and failing to take adequate precautions could precipitate a collapse.”
At minimum, the engineering and construction costs entailed need to be assessed. The Pali Highway repairs were budgeted at $20 million and took several months to complete. Unlike the Pali Highway repairs, which dealt only with natural erosive forces, the Stairs demolition entails an active intervention to remove an 80-year structure anchored to a ridgeline that rises over 2300 feet and 2.2 miles from valley floor to summit.
Furthermore, this is a matter of public safety, not just cost— human lives and property are at stake. Unlike the Pali tunnels, hundreds of homes and a school lie directly below the Stairs project site. “The City’s failure to grapple seriously with the costs, safety risks, and engineering challenges is concerning,” Pager noted. “Even if the risk of a catastrophic collapse is low, it needs to be addressed before proceeding with demolition.”
The shortcomings and omissions in the City’s budget and planning go beyond these examples. FHS has compiled a long list of hidden costs, unanswered questions, and looming obstacles. Other unaccounted for, and potentially unavoidable costs include the “temporary and permanent sediment control measures” that the EIS contemplates, the costs of revegetating the denuded hillside once the Stairs are removed, and continuing security expenses. Further obstacles include toxicology concerns, a historic preservation covenant (which the EIS entirely overlooks), required State and Federal permitting, and potential lawsuits.
All these issues need to be addressed before proceeding further toward demolition. “The City Council should pause its demolition funding and protect O‘ahu taxpayers from a potentially costly mistake,” Pager urged. “The last thing we need is to blunder into another open-ended public works project where planning failures lead to costly overruns, especially where a better alternative awaits: a complete, zero-cost solution that was not on the table last September.”
“The costs and concerns surrounding demolition can be entirely avoided if the City and County move forward with the community’s plan for the Stairs,” Pager noted. The Ha‘ikū Stairs are a historically significant World II monument and iconic Windward landmark, whose majestic views have thrilled generations of kama‘āina families. A majority of the O‘ahu and Windward public supports keeping this popular destination open. When the issue of demolition was before the Council in September 2021, 1,338 citizens took their time to submit testimony opposing the Stairs removal—representing over 90% of submitted comments.
The City’s rush to removal is especially troubling given the emergence of a promising new, community-driven alternative solution. “Instead of spending taxpayer money to destroy a priceless, historic monument, the City Council should take stock of the potential for a win-win solution that can solve the problem without the need for any public funding,” Pager urged. “In the six months since the Council voted for demolition budget, we have brought together local community members, Native Hawaiian groups, and other key stakeholders to develop a new vision for Haʻikū Valley that includes preservation of the Haʻikū Stairs for future generations through a non-profit, community-driven managed access plan. The plan allows for controlled public access in a safe, environmentally sustainable manner that respects traditional cultural protocols, fully protects the City from costs and liability, eliminates trespassing and disturbances to valley residents, and provides safe and sustainable public access and parking that avoids residential neighborhoods.”
Pager noted that the momentum behind this new collaborative vision continues to build. “Given the chance, we can fully resolve the issues surrounding Haʻikū Stairs in a positive manner that generates local jobs and community investment.” The Friends of Ha‘ikū Stairs urges the City Council to slow down and fully account for the costs and challenges of destroying the Stairs. “Once they have done so,” Pager said, “we are confident they will see the advantages offered by preserving and managing the Stairs over demolition.”
The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs is an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that was formed in 1987. Their mission is to protect the historic Haʻikū Stairs and its environment for current and future generations.