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Regulating Big Island bike tours

HILO, Hawai‘i — What began as an effort to reduce bike traffic on specific West Hawai‘i roads has become a proposed series of regulations upon bike tour operators throughout the Big Island.

In January, Kohala Councilwoman Cindy Evans introduced to a County Council committee a measure that would prohibit bicycle tour operators from sending tour groups down Kohala Mountain Road and a roughly 8-mile stretch of Akoni Pule Highway between Kohala Mountain Road and Pololu Valley Lookout.

At the time, Evans said the roads are narrow and have very reduced sight lines, which makes them particularly unsafe for large groups of bikers — drivers have complained to her of rounding a blind corner to find a group of a dozen cyclists taking up half the roadway.

Almost half a year later, however, the proposal has morphed into something quite different. After several committee meetings worth of tinkering, the measure now adds a section to the Hawai‘i County Code establishing regulations upon commercial bike tour operators islandwide.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz drafted the amendments that so completely changed the bill, and thanked Evans at Wednesday’s council meeting for her “generous latitude” for allowing such changes.

As written, Kierkiewicz’s amended bill would require commercial bike tour operators to register with the county annually — on Wednesday, Kierkiewicz suggested registration fees of $500 for the first year and $250 for subsequent years — and would authorize the county to restrict tour operators from operating on public roads where bike tours would be considered “a threat of public safety.”

While the bill leaves such a determination of road safety up to the interpretation of agencies, such as the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Hawai‘i Police Department and the state Department of Transportation, it suggests that factors, such as narrow pavement widths, reduced shoulder size, limited sight lines, steep grades, narrow bridges or otherwise “winding or hilly terrain” could all be considered unsafe road conditions.

Any tour operator that violates the terms of the bill — whether by operating on a restricted road or by not registering — would be fined $500 for a first offense and at least $1,000 per bicycle for any subsequent offense within a year of the first offense.

Kierkiewicz introduced her amendments at a May 1 council meeting, where she said the changes are an effort to allay concerns about how the county could justify restricting a road to bike tours. When the council identifies a problematic road, it will consult with the leaders of managing agencies to confirm if those roads are unsafe for groups of cyclists.

On Wednesday, DPW Director Steve Pause said there is “plenty of data” and traffic manuals to make data-driven decisions about any given road. He and Kierkiewicz agreed upon a 45-day analysis period for officials to determine the safety of a given road.

“There’s a lot of roads where you have inches to a foot of space between the lines,” said Pause, adding that signage could be added to designated roads after a county decision.

Council members supported the amended bill, with Evans calling it “such a better bill” than her initial proposal, and praised her fellows for their feedback allowing it to be reshaped in a collaborative way.

While there was minimal testimony on the measure, two residents submitted letters expressing doubts. Jon Hayes wrote that the bill could be used to ban cycling on public roads altogether.

“The way it is worded currently could be interpreted as anyone using an app or a map could be considered part of a tour,” Hayes wrote.

Kailua-Kona resident Jon Luft wrote that the bill has inadequate definitions of the possible hazards of unsafe roads — “winding or hilly terrain,” for example, “could apply to nearly all roadways on Hawai‘i Island,” he wrote — and urged more data-driven regulations instead of arbitrary decisions by department heads.

More changes are in store for the measure, as Kierkiewicz said she wants to continue to improve the bill’s language before it goes to final reading before the council. She moved Wednesday to postpone the measure until a later session to allow for those changes, to which the council unanimously agreed.

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Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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