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Senate committee approves measure for state-run ferries

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A bill that would establish a state-controlled, high-speed ferry system, much like the ill-fated Hawaii Superferry, cleared the Senate Transportation Committee yesterday.

House Bill 1239, introduced by state Rep. Joe Souki, would set up the Hawaii State Ferry System and a special fund for its operation. The bill would not be effective until July 2030, although the date is likely a tactic to ensure a measure is finalized in a House-Senate conference committee.

The Superferry ended operations in March 2009 after state courts ruled its operations were illegal without an environmental impact statement.

Last year the Senate killed a bill to authorize a study of a statewide ferry system. Supporters believed the study could have outlined future operations in ocean transportation.

The latest bill received mixed testimony yesterday, including lukewarm support from the state Department of Transportation, which said it supports a state ferry system in concept, but only if it is done through the U.S. military or a public-private partnership.

"This bill seeks a Hawaii State Ferry Authority of which the DOT has no expertise or resources to operate and maintain," the department said. The department said it would seek federal funding, since establishing an authority might "adversely impact the current and proposed budgets."

The bill seeks to establish an authority made up of six voting members appointed by the governor.

The bill opens the possibility of the state buying or leasing the Superferry or other "available suitable vessels."

Yesterday, Kalbert Young, director of the Department of Budget and Finance, said that at this point "it is difficult to determine whether the Hawaii State Ferry System special fund would be financially self-sustaining."

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Foundation supported the bill, saying it would enhance agriculture and the local economy.

Sea Link of Hawaii, which provides ferry serv­ice between Maui and Molokai, opposed the bill for many reasons, including the need to protect whales, adding that a ferry system is "not economically feasible without huge state subsidies" due to the heavy fuel consumption.

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