Commuters who rely on the 100-foot Molokai Princess to get them to and from work every day recently got a surprise from David Jung, president of Sea Link of Hawaii, which runs the Molokai Princess.
“Regrettably, Sea Link of Hawaii, Inc. has been forced to increase round trip commuter ferry rates from $15 to $25 mainly due to continual rising fuel prices and a down turn of our economy,” Jung wrote in a letter dated May 7, 2008. According to the letter, the fare hike goes into effect on June 1. Sea Link is also applying with the state Public Utilities Commission for permission to apply a fuel surcharge to non-commuter fares.
“That’s understandable that they have to raise the fares,” said Louise Linker, who makes the trip five days a week to get to the Department of Health office on Maui where she works. “But we want to get some kind of subsidy” from the county or state, she added.
“Fifteen bucks is a good deal; $25 is pushing it,” said another commuter who wished to remain anonymous. “We need help here. Everybody [on Molokai] needs a job.”
Price is apparently not the only issue, according to these commuters. The new requirement that commuters make the trip four times a week or more in order to qualify for rates may make the commute infeasible for some.
In an interview, Jung said it’s been a decade since the Molokai Princess has seen a hike in commuter rates. In that time, he said, the price of a gallon of gas went from a dollar to $4.25.
“It’s pretty obscene,” Jung said. “The boat burns over $1,000 [in fuel] every round trip.”
Commuters currently pay $7.50 on each round trip fare while their employers pay the other half. With the impending rate hike, they’ll each have to fork over $12.50 per round trip.
The commuter program began in late 1987 under Governor John Waihe‘e. It gave residents of Molokai, whose unemployment rate was a painful 10.2 percent in December 1989, a cheap way to commute to West Maui, where job opportunities were more abundant.
Some argue that many of these people may have otherwise relied on unemployment or welfare. In fact, a 1988 state Department of Business and Economic Development memo notes that savings on welfare and other programs offset the state’s $1,600 a day ferry subsidy so well that “a case might even be made that the program not only costs the state nothing, but that it actually saves money for the state.”
Currently, Jung said, the Molokai Princess crosses the Pailolo Channel—the choppy channel between Maui and Molokai—with a total of 45 commuters who make the trip at least four times a week. Regardless of the fare hike, Jung said he expects commuter volume to increase in the wake of Molokai Ranch shutting down.
To be eligible for commuter-rates, riders must travel at least four times a week.
Normally, the boat crosses the Pailolo Channel four times daily, seven days a week: Kaunakakai to Lahaina twice daily at 5:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and the reverse at 7:15 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
But to cut back on fuel costs, starting May 25 the Molokai Princess will end its Sunday morning round trip, and will only do afternoon/evening runs on Sundays.
State money for the commuter program ended in 1996, and Jung believes current conditions mean it’s time to start up again.
“It may become necessary for the state to ante up and help us out,” Jung said. MTW