Gov. David Ige’s administration is moving ahead with a proposal to revive interisland ferry service in Hawaii, a potentially controversial effort that could even involve the same catamaran vessels that were deployed in the ill-fated “Superferry” initiative that shut down in 2009.
State Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami told lawmakers his office is managing the initiative, which will take a step forward later this year when the state seeks proposals for a feasibility study for a ferry system.
Fuchigami cautioned lawmakers that putting a ferry back into service would take years, and told senators that “we need to do it right this time.”
He also said he has inquired about the two vessels that were purchased by the military after the Hawaii Superferry initiative failed, and said he was told the vessels are not being used.
Senate Transportation and Energy Committee Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye, (D, Kapulehu-Waimea-North Hilo) said this week that she supports the effort, and plans to travel with Fuchigami to Washington, D.C., in March to learn more about the status of the former Superferry vessels.
The state Department of Transportation played a key role in the original effort to launch the privately owned Superferry project during former Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration.
The state contributed about $40 million in harbor improvements to accommodate the service, and the department in 2005 made a crucial decision to exempt the project from some environmental review requirements, including an environmental impact statement.
The first vessel put into service was a 349-foot catamaran able to travel between islands at up to 40 mph, and capable of carrying up to 866 passengers and 282 cars.
The Superferry system launched on Aug. 24, 2007, but was blocked two days later by protesting swimmers and surfers at Kauai’s Nawiliwili Harbor. On Aug. 27, protesters who were blocking the harbor forced the ferry to turn back without docking, prompting the service to suspend its Kauai trips.
Days later the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the DOT should have required additional environmental reviews for the Superferry project. Lingle then called lawmakers into a special session to pass a law to allow the Superferry to continue to operate while an environmental impact statement was performed.
The Superferry resumed service to Kahului in December, but in March 2009 the state Supreme Court ruled that the law passed by the Legislature during the 2007 special session was unconstitutional. That decision forced the Superferry to halt operations again, and the company entered bankruptcy on May 30, 2009.
Tim Sakahara, department spokesman, issued a written statement Monday confirming that “HDOT is working with the state Legislature and the U.S. Maritime Administration on a feasibility study of an interisland ferry system.”
“Should the state continue the discussions of a ferry system, an environmental impact statement will be conducted in addition to studying factors such as possible routes, speed, impacts, benefits and ridership,” Sakahara said in his statement.
The cost of the feasibility study is still unknown, and Sakahara said the DOT plans to seek funding for the initiative “from our state and federal partners.” Fuchigami told lawmakers the current plan would have the state own the ferry vessels because that will allow the state to qualify for federal subsidies.
Fuchigami said Ige’s goal is to look at all intermodal transportation, and that a ferry system “is going to be very important.” A spokeswoman for Ige’s office said the governor had nothing to add to the department’s comments.
House Speaker Joseph Souki described himself as “a strong advocate of the ferry,” and said he would be happy to reopen the issue. He said a state-owned system “would be even better, but it’s a major investment.” A feasibility study would allow the state to weigh the cost of the project and the amount of public support for a ferry, he said.
“But we certainly need one,” said Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku). “We’re probably the only archipelago in the whole world that doesn’t have a ferry.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi was more cautious. He said the state clearly needs to do an environmental impact statement to comply with the law. That will provide an opportunity for public comment, and Kouchi (D, Kauai-Niihau) wondered whether public perception of the project may have evolved as interisland air fares have increased in recent years.
Opponents of the project on Kauai were passionate, he said, with people worried that traffic from the Superferry would lead to depletion of natural resources and fishing areas, and crowding at surfing spots.
However, “part of the issue was that it was so inexpensive to go interisland (by air),” Kouchi said. “That’s not the case today, so maybe views have changed because of wanting competition in the interisland transportation market.”
At least some of the previous opponents of the interisland ferry system remain strongly opposed to the idea. Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said revival of a ferry system would likely cause invasive species such little fire ants to spread even more rapidly across the island chain.
Perez said running a ferry system is not a profitable business, “and that’s why ferries went out with the advent of the airlines.” Maui Tomorrow, a watchdog group that seeks to enforce land use and environmental law, joined in a lawsuit to block the original Superferry project.
Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser said the Superferry model of a large, fast vessel is wrong for Hawaii because it uses too much fuel, goes too fast and carries too many cars, which means the impact on rural communities would be significant.
“This is a giant hole in the water that the state’s going to pour money into if this moves forward,” Hooser said. “It’s going to take massive subsidies, and it’s going to be another boondoggle, in my opinion.”
Hooser said the state would be better off spending its money “on schools, and affordable housing and drug treatment at prison, not on subsidizing something like this that will just be a massive drain of resources.”