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Sink state-run superferry idea

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State legislators skeptically backed away from ordering a study last year about the wisdom of launching a state-sponsored multi-island ferry system. They are now on the brink of falling overboard by creating a framework of such a system without a study.

Some people are under the impression that the Hawaii Superferry was successful before the state Supreme Court pulled the plug two years ago because no environmental impact statement had been prepared, as required by state law. The Superferry had been popular with farmers and travelers but its ability to stay afloat financially was questionable.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie said during last year’s campaign that he favored a resurrection of an interisland ferry system but "the only way the Superferry is going to come back except in a fantasy is if there is a partnership with the United States military or a private-public partnership."

Glenn M. Okimoto, his transportation director, reiterated that view in testimony to legislators this week.

House Bill 1239 —which was prematurely approved Tuesday by the Senate Transportation Committee —would create a Hawaii state ferry system authority headed by six members appointed by the governor to hire consultants while deciding how to operate a system between Maui, Molokai, Lanai "and other routes." Ferry systems overseen by the state Public Utilities Commission already link Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Operators of those ferries understandably are concerned that a state-run ferry would be allowed to compete without adhering to PUC requirements.

Despite populist appeal as a transportation option, whether a ferry system with statewide routes can make money is questionable. Hawaii Superferry appeared to enjoy such success in the first six months after going to sea in December 2007. However, it filed for bankruptcy two months after the court ordered it docked in March 2009. While the ferry operator had paid the state $2.6 million in fees, it owed $1.3 million, only about half of which the state was able to recover in bankruptcy court.

John Garibaldi, Superferry Inc.’s former chief executive officer, said during last year’s legislative session that he remained "a firm believer in a statewide ferry system for Hawaii." However, he doubted that a private company would try to start another ferry system for the state. The two Superferry catamarans were sold at a foreclosure auction last October to the Maritime Administration for possible use by the Navy.

The state now is stuck with two-lane barges and ramps used only by the Superferry at four Hawaii harbors at a cost of $40 million that was supposed to have been paid by Superferry. Shipping fees paid by other harbor users now will pay the debt off over the next 17 years.

Putting those barges and ramps back to use is not an adequate reason to make a commitment toward a state-run ferry system that may well be economically unfeasible — especially under tight budget conditions and the advent of the costly rail transit system. A comprehensive examination of such a proposal is needed, including the environmental effects, before creating such a state-controlled ferry system, with or without a private or military partner.

Correction: The Supeme Court stopped the Hawaii Superferry two years ago. A previous version of this story contained a typo.

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