Rebuffed By Legislature, Hawaii Counties Seek Solutions To Mounting Abandoned Car Problem

Mar 12, 2020

A mountain of metal, made up mostly of impounded vehicles, await recycling on Kaua'i.
Credit County of Kaua'i

Updated: 3/12/2020, 11:59 a.m.

Hawaiʻi’s mayors are not getting the help they’ve sought from the state Legislature this year to tackle a growing problem – abandoned cars. Transportation is a legislative priority for the Hawaiʻi Council of Mayors, but none of the measures the group proposed this year to deal with junk cars made it out of its originating chamber. Counties are now seeking solutions to this mounting problem on their own.

On Kauaʻi last year, taxpayers paid nearly a half a million dollars to deal with abandoned cars. Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami said police are struggling to find the vehicle owners to hold them accountable because the expense of removing the cars adds up.

“Whenever we have to go and retrieve a vehicle on the side of the road, it costs about $700 to get that vehicle removed,” says Kawakami. “If we have to get it from a beach area or a challenging area, that cost can go to well over $1,000 per vehicle.”

One legislative proposal proposed by Hawaiʻi's mayors, House Bill 1729, would have made it easier for counties to recoup the cost of removing junk cars. Another, Senate Bill 2123, proposed to allow counties to raise the annual vehicle registration tax by $25 to deal specifically with this issue.

Counties also offered a measure, House Bill 1726, that would have extended the highway beautification fee that residents pay to rental cars as part of their vehicle registrations. But none of these bills have gained any traction at the Legislature.

So the counties are going it alone for now in dealing with the financial and environmental costs of  junk cars.

Last year, Kauaʻi County received reports on 900 abandoned vehicles. Meanwhile, Maui County logged nearly double that number of abandoned vehicles. To cover removal costs, counties usually charge residents a Highway Beautification fee of up to $10 a year. But Tamara Farnsworth, head of the county Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division, says that wasn’t enough for Maui.

“In addition to our Highway Beautification Fund and Abandoned Vehicles Fund, which is $10 a year, we also have a $25 vehicle disposal fee that each Maui resident pays on their annual registration,” says Farnsworth.

The money helps subsidize Maui’s junk car disposal program and it allows residents to junk one vehicle per year for free. All counties offer a similar program.

Hawaiʻi County removes over 1,000 abandoned vehicles a year. The county also offers an amnesty program for those who find abandoned vehicles on their property.

Bill Kucharski, the director of the countyʻs Environmental Management Department, has heard stories like this: “’I got three abandoned vehicles. I donʻt have papers for them. I can’t show you I own them.” 

“We have a special program for that," he said. "I think we allow two of those a year.”

Despite such programs, the number of abandoned vehicles continues to rise statewide.

On Oʻahu last year, the city removed over 4,700 abandoned cars. That’s a 48 percent jump over the previous year. Randy Leong, deputy director of the city’s Customer Services Department, blames ineffective deterrents.

Kauaʻi Mayor Kawakami thinks the root of the problem may be the state’s high cost of living.

“You see it every single day. You see families out there after work, just working on their vehicles to make sure that they can get to work the next day,” says Kawakami.

If these families can’t complete the repairs, the vehicles just sit there, sometimes for years.

Kawakami admits financial hardship isn’t the only reason residents abandon their vehicles but his administration is looking at treating abandoned cars like a bulky item pick-up.

That way, when the county identifies families that are hard hit, it can say, "‘Hey, you know, we can come by and help you remove some of these items so that you don't feel that you have to abandon them on the side of the road,’” says Kawakami.

Whether counties choose the carrot or stick approach, the abandoned vehicles likely won’t go away any time soon.

See HPR's series, "Trashing the Islands," an ongoing look at why tossing away waste and forgetting about it is no longer viable.