A driver dodges a pothole on Farrington Highway in Kapolei.
Image: Joana Gonzalez

The state’s reluctant to pay motorists for damage caused by O‘ahu’s collapsing streets

We’ve all seen them: huge gouges in our roads that look as if a meteor took a bite out of the asphalt. Potholes. Our state and city roads are riddled with them. According to a March 2012 study by TRIP (a national transportation research group) about two-thirds of Hawaii’s roads are “deteriorated and in need of repair or replacement,” costing drivers an additional $549 in vehicle operating costs each year alone.

Luckily, if your vehicle is damaged by one of these all-too-common craters, you don’t necessarily have to bear the brunt of the costs alone.

Where to turn

Both the City and County of Honolulu and the state of Hawaii award restitution for vehicles damaged on their roads. Derek Inoshita from Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) tells the Weekly that where you file a claim depends on which road the damage occurred. “Residential areas, Beretania, King are all city roads and you report claims to the Corporation Council. H-1, H-2, the Pali, those are state roads, and the investigation begins with the [Department of Accounting and General Services’s] Risk Management Office,” says Inoshita.

Investigation meaning, it’s not as simple as: Hit a pothole, and the city or the state willingly admits blame for the damage and hands over money. In reality, as Kapolei resident Jonathan Borgia testifies, “It was a nightmare dealing with the state, which is supposed to be the avenue of restitution.” Borgia went through the claims process last year after a pothole on Kamaaha Avenue in Kapolei–a state road–damaged an essential part of a wheel on his car.

The process

Both the city and the state have similar procedures: The victim fills out a form naming witnesses and describing the location of the pothole and the incident; takes photos of vehicle and pothole; and has the repairs performed, keeping all receipts.

Then, according to DAGS Business Management Officer Kerry Yoneshige, “The claimant waits an average of 60 days for a response.” Yoneshige, as well as Donald Meinel, chief investigator for the city’s Corporation Counsel, also emphasizes that any claim for consecutive pothole damage will be instantly denied. Investigation is reserved for “isolated incidences.”

If only claimants had it that easy. Borgia filed his claim in March 2011 with the state’s Risk Management Office, only to have it denied “five to six times in a matter of three months,” he says.

The first time, after following all the steps–calling the hotline, filling out forms,taking pictures–Borgia had his claim denied because, he was told, the photos “weren’t good enough, and they didn’t show exactly where the pothole was located.”

The third time, the Risk Management Office “told me the pothole couldn’t have caused the damage because my tire didn’t pop. Luckily, I know enough about cars to explain why the damage happened the way it did,” Borgia says.

Before rejecting him the fourth time, the Risk Management Office sent out a team to fill the pothole, and then told Borgia it had never existed. “The state told me their records said the pothole was filled three months ago, before the incident occurred. When I asked to see the work order, they refused to produce it,” he says. “I had to go around asking neighbors whether or not the pothole was still there when I hit it with my car.”

After DAGS played nearly every trick in the book, Borgia gave them an ultimatum: “I threatened to take them to small claims court, and they finally settled with me.”

Small reward

Seems like quite a hassle for Borgia’s recompense of $257.50, an amount that could have been much higher had he not repaired the damages by himself rather than at a shop. However, it could also explain why the state of Hawaii only paid out 116 pothole claims in FY2011 for a total of $56,991, averaging, according to Yoneshige’s calculations, $491 per claim,

“I don’t know if it’s their policy to say no and hope that people just give up,” says Borgia, who adds he would go through it all over again because otherwise, it seems like the government just gets away with things.

Asked if it would be easier to just repave all our deteriorated roads than continue reimbursing motorists, Yoneshige cites the low number of claims paid and the average amount: “I don’t believe claims tend to be over $1,000.”

Temporary relief

This week, motorists may feel some relief along one of Honolulu’s bumpiest roads. “We identified Ward Avenue as needing resurfacing a long time ago,” says Westley Chun, director of the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance (DFM). “But because of the upcoming sewer and water work, we couldn’t really go in. We don’t want to repave a road then have to dig it up shortly after to put in new sewer lines or new water lines.” The city aims for five years of smooth roadway without intermittent work, he adds.

Since the city generally contracts out water and sewer work, DFM has had to put off the long-standing repavement project. At this point, though, Ward Avenue just can’t wait any longer. “We have to do in-house pavement to provide temporary relief for drivers,” says Chun.

Tyler Sugihara, road maintenance division chief, admits, “Ward is like diving across a washboard. If you have a four-wheel drive, you’re bouncing.” After many complaints, makai-bound lane repavement begins this week. Work on mauka-bound lanes will start Saturday.

To report a pothole call 786-7777 (city roads) or 831-6703 (state roads)