MAUNA LOA, Hawaii (KHON2) — If the Saddle Road is closed, one of the alternative routes between Hilo and Kona is along the Hamakua Coast. Gina Mangieri took a test drive to see what people are in for.

It’s a long and winding road to say the least, sure to add a lot of time, wear and tear, and bust some gas budgets. Officials are hustling to get Highway 19 ready for a possible influx of drivers, and people here said they’re preparing for some long commute and work days ahead.

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Nearly 6,000 vehicles a day usually crisscross some part of Highway 200, officially the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road. Most of that traffic has to find somewhere else to go if lava crosses its path. Before Saddle Road, much of that movement took place along Highway 19, along the scenic Hamakua coast, a sometimes two-lane road — with plenty of one-lane alternating-direction construction zones — a lot lower speed limits and no shortage of twists and turns, ups and downs.

Among those who would be most affected are people who have to commute between Hilo and Kona for work on a daily basis. We came down to the main bus station in Hilo before dawn to catch the early cross-island riders and ask how a highway closure would impact them, and how much time would it add to their work day just to get there.

“A lot of times I start at 6 in the morning, sometimes 8 in the morning,” said John Gualdarama, waiting for the 5:02 Route 2 Blue Line.

If he had to go Hamakua route instead, he would have to leave earlier. “We would leave 3:15 to get out there. It takes about two and a half hours, maybe two-forty-five.”

We wanted to see what riders and drivers will be going through so we set off ourselves mid-morning and right away encountered several construction-related slowdowns. 

Two bridges have just recently been rebuilt which had been weight restricted disallowing buses and heavy trucks for months recently, sending all of those to Saddle Road instead.

“So now we’re having to potentially do the reverse,” explained John Andoh, Hawaii County’s mass transit administrator. “But I appreciate everyone’s patience as we continue to work through these challenges. And our main objective is to make sure we get people around the island as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

At Nanue bridge around mile marker 18 on Highway 19 — the island’s highest bridge — it has been down to one lane in each direction due to major repairs. Those repairs have just wrapped up. 

“We’re just pulling all the scaffolding now,” explained Ed Sniffen, deputy director of highways for the state Department of Transportation. “So if the lava accelerated and got there, before the three days that we’re anticipating, we’ll just pull the crane and leave the scaffolding for now. So we have plans in place to ensure that we can expedite any lane openings that we need.”

Updates on highway status can be found on the Hawaii DOT website and bus routes can be found the the Hele On Bus website.

After a sometimes bumpy, often curvy and even wavy ride to the other side, we arrived in Kona well over 2 hours later even minus a stop at the bridge, and $50 lighter in the wallet in gas money. 

Officials say they’re working on express options for mass transit to shave some time off the folks who boomerang between the farthest ends of the route.

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“Those trips would just go from Hilo straight to Hilton Waikoloa, and then work its way from the Hilton down to the airport,” Andoh said. “So it wouldn’t make any stops along the coast or in Waimea.”

It won’t be the first time Madame Pele rerouted traffic, if it happens.

“I’m from Pahoa where they just closed the roads last eruption,” said Shawn Goring. “So it changes your whole life. It makes you realize that something is different and ain’t gonna be the same again for a little while.”