Hawaii may revisit interisland ferry service

Six years after the star-crossed Hawaii Superferry shutdown, state senators in April approved a resolution asking the Hawaii Department of Transportation to look into the prospects for re-establishing ferry service. 

“At the very least, we owe it to all Hawaii residents to revisit the feasibility of a ferry system,” Sen. Michelle Kidani, who sponsored the measure, said. “I believe that the Superferry was a wonderful asset for our communities.”

The resolution, which cited Washington State Ferries — the largest in the U.S. — as well as systems in Alaska, New Zealand, and Australia/Tasmania, said the study should emphasize compliance with the state’s environmental protection laws. The report also should consider costs, revenues, financing options, harbor infrastructure and vessel design and capacity and be completed before the next legislative session.

Hawaii DOT director Ford Fuchigami said in written testimony that his agency supports the resolution’s intent but doesn’t have the money to do the study. An environmental impact statement alone would cost about $1 million. 

He also said a state-operated system wasn’t financially feasible now, but a private company might operate the service provided fuel costs are low, there is a good mix of passenger and vehicle rates, “and winter sea conditions are factored in developing the business plan.”

Hawaii Shippers Council president Michael Hansen said his organization supports the broad intent of the resolution, but he suggested the state handle only port and terminal facilities and not “the highly specialized role of vessel owner and operator, which the private sector can accomplish much more efficiently.”

He also raised issues such as regulatory approval and coastwise trade laws, and noted the council formed an interisland ferry working group last October.

Hawaii Superferry began operations in 2007 with one of two 350′, 44,000-hp, aluminum catamarans built at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., with $140 million in Title XI loan guarantees. 

On its first trip to the island of Kauai, the Alakai faced protesters who blocked the entrance to Nawiliwili Harbor. After that incident, the boat ran only between Honolulu and Maui. In 2008, the vessel went into drydock for repairs to its auxiliary rudders. While there, a tug moving the ferry lost power, damaging the ferry’s hull and requiring an extended drydock stay.

In 2009, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that legislation permitting the Alakai to run without a completed environmental review was unconstitutional. Hawaii Superferry ceased operations, and the company declared bankruptcy a few months later.   

In 2012, the Alakai and the Huakai, which can carry up to 836 passengers and 282 cars or 65 cars and 28 40′ trucks, were transferred to the Navy by the U.S. Maritime Administration for $35 million. — Dale K. DuPont


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