To say the Hawaii Superferry was flawed is like saying the Titanic had minor iceberg issues. The litany of problems—legal, environmental, cultural—that made the boat a colossal boondoggle and ultimately led the state Supreme Court to order it out of the water in early 2009 have been well documented. At the same time, no one denies that a well-run, carefully launched and financially viable inter-island ferry service would be a boon for Hawaii.
Which raises two questions: Is such a thing even possible? And is HB1239—which was passed by the state House earlier this month and, as of this writing, is pending in the Senate Ways and Means Committee—a step in the right direction?
The bill would create a new entity within the Department of Transportation to oversee statewide ferry operations and, “engage in communications with the United States Department of Transportation and the United States Maritime Administration relating to federal funding assistance and the possible purchase or lease of the former high-speed ferry vessel that operated in waters of the state or other available suitable vessels to commence its operations.” Basically, taxpayers would foot the bill for a ferry reboot, including potentially buying back the former Superferry vessels—the Alakai and her never-launched sister ship, the Huakai—which were purchased out of bankruptcy by the federal government.
The bill was introduced by Maui Rep. Joe Souki, who was instrumental—along with then-Governor Linda Lingle—in pushing the Superferry through without a completed Environmental Impact Statement, a decision that precipitated its demise. Last year, Souki championed a bill that would have studied the viability of a statewide ferry service, but it fizzled quickly and quietly.
The current bill cruised through the House with little resistance, receiving only token opposition from the Republican minority. That’s curious, because even the Department of Transportation has serious reservations. In testimony provided to the Senate transportation committee, DOT said it would support a statewide ferry “only if it were done through the United States military or a private-public partnership.” Further, DOT said it “has no expertise or resources to operate and maintain” a ferry system.
Meanwhile, Kalbert Young, director of the Department of Budget and Finance, raised concerns about the system’s economic viability. HB1239 would create a special fund to pay for infrastructure and operations, but Young said it’s “difficult to determine whether [the ferry] would be financially self-sustaining.”
Sea Link of Hawaii—a private company that operates a ferry between Maui and Molokai under the auspices of the Public Utilities Commission—warned that the bill would “immediately cripple” its service. Sea Link also branded high-speed vessels like the ones used by Hawaii Superferry “very fuel-inefficient.”
“While the Superferry is a technological wonder, it simply is too expensive to build, maintain and operate on an inter-island route,” wrote Sea Link general manager David Jung in Senate testimony. “It would be comparable to mandating a state-operated airline fly only supersonic Concorde aircraft between our islands.”
The bill does have supporters. The Hawaii Farm Bureau suggested it could begin “a new chapter” for statewide agriculture by creating “an efficient, reliable and affordable transportation system.”
And—based on the public outcry that followed the Superferry’s demise—there are many residents who want an alternative to the airlines and the de facto shipping monopoly of Young Brothers. A “Save the Hawaii Superferry!” Facebook group created in 2009 has more than 5,000 members, and when MauiTime ran a story that gave the vessel failing grades across the board shortly before the Supreme Court ruling (see sidebar), much of the feedback that flowed in was vehemently pro-Superferry.
But just because people want something doesn’t mean it’s viable. The Superferry never managed to break even—let alone turn a profit—forcing CEO John Lehman (an investment banker and former Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan) to pump in his own money.
Then there are the environmental concerns—including collisions with whales and the spread of invasive species—that Hawaii Superferry never adequately addressed. And who can forget the scene that unfolded on Kauai, when hundreds of protesters paddled out into Nawiliwili Harbor to “greet” the ferry on its maiden voyage from Oahu? The scene was described dramatically in The Superferry Chronicles, a gripping and thoroughly researched exposé by writer/filmmaker Koohan Paik and activist Jerry Mander that’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand the issue and the players involved: “The Superferry appeared on the horizon, headed straight at us,” reads the book’s opening paragraph. “One-and-a-half times the length of a football field, five stories high, the uninvited menace had burned nearly 6,000 gallons of diesel from Honolulu to Kauai.”
Now that the state is considering getting into the high-speed ferry business, there are pressing concerns. Chief among them: can a venture that wasn’t profitable under private stewardship succeed when run by a government that’s more than $1 billion in the red?
And yet, as Paik and Mander put it, the “central problem” with the Superferry was that it was launched with ulterior motives that “had little or nothing to do with the needs of local communities.”
“In our opinion, an inter-island ferry in Hawaii should probably be operated as a public utility, like the bus service or the water department, to ensure that the welfare of the people [and] the protection of the wildlife on land and in sea are at the top of the list of priorities,” reads the conclusion to The Superferry Chronicles.
It sounds like, in principle at least, some of Hawaii Superferry’s harshest critics think a bill like HB1239 could be a solution. If it passes—that’s far from a sure thing, though even if it dies supporters may revive it next year—it’ll be interesting to see whether public officials and the people of Hawaii ultimately agree.