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Hawaii Superferry's Future Clouded by Protester Driven Court Action

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Updated August 28, 2007

Hawaii has been widely criticized as having a poor climate for business. As recently as last August a Forbes survey rated Hawaii 42nd out of the 50 states with particularly poor marks in the areas of business costs, regulatory environment, growth prospects and quality of life.

Not surprisingly in a state economy where so many businesses and workers are dependent on the tourist industry, many of the businesses negatively affected by this poor business climate have traditionally been tourist related. It's always been easy to pooh-pooh or even dismiss these complaints outright since so many locals resent the way that so much of the state's economy is dependent on tourism.

It's therefore with a large degree of interest that I've been following the startup of the new Hawaii Superferry. You see, this is not a new business aimed primarily for visitors to the islands.

The Hawaii Superferry

Its primary purpose is to ease interisland transportation for Hawaii residents and business owners using their own vehicles. For example, a farmer on Maui might work with several other local growers to ship fresh produce or flowers to Oahu. A family on Oahu might take a trip to visit relatives on Kauai using their own car, thus eliminating the cost of airfare and rental car. Although some visitors might try the Hawaii Superferry, most rental cars will not be allowed onboard.

The Superferry operation has been in the development stage for years. The first of two ferries built exclusively for the Hawaii service, at the cost of $95 million, arrived on June 30, 2007. The second ferry is currently under construction and scheduled for delivery in 2009.

Environmental and Infrastructure Concerns

I never been a strong supporter of the Hawaii Superferry. From the first announcement of the venture, I had serious concerns about the ability of the neighbor islands to absorb up to 282 additional cars each day. As one who frequently drives through Kahului, Maui and the Nawiliwili Harbor area of Lihue, Kauai, I envisioned serious traffic issues. The infrastructure on all of the Hawaiian Islands is already stretched to the limit.

Opposition to the Hawaii Superferry has brought together a diverse group of people concerned not only about these issues of infrastructure and traffic, but also those concerned about the impact of the Hawaii Superferry on the islands' delicate ocean environment, especially during whale season.

Resident Support

Despite these concerns the vast majority of island residents support the launch of the Hawaii Superferry. As recently as this spring 4 out of 5 residents expressed favorable opinions of the Hawaii Superferry and 75 percent of all residents wanted service to start on schedule this week.

While the opposition continued to express their feelings and promise legal action to stop the launch of the service, it appeared things were going full speed ahead. The principal focus of the opposition centered on Kahului Harbor and the need for an environmental impact statement.

In recent years Kahului Harbor has gotten very busy. Norwegian Cruise Lines added three cruise ships for interisland cruises each week. More cargo ships and barges have been arriving. The State waived the requirement of an environmental impact study addressing the issue of port traffic and the courts refused to block the launch of service.

Hawaii Supreme Court Speaks

Last Friday, things went crazy. On appeal from the lower court, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the State had erred in not completing an environmental impact study. Yet, since the Court did not specifically rule on whether the Superferry could begin operation without the study, the operators decided to jump start service last Sunday with a special $5 fare (as opposed to the normal $41-$62 fare).

Protests on Kauai

While the ferry was able to dock on Maui without incident, protesters taking to the water delayed docking on Kauai for several hours on Sunday and prevented docking altogether on Monday.

As I’ve mentioned, these protesters are a unique combination of widely divergent interest groups. Quoting Tuesday's Honolulu Advertiser, "The Hawaii Superferry has created an alignment of interests that may be unique in political activism for the wide range of people and groups involved. In the crowd that gathered against the ferry on Kauai on Sunday were protesters who cited the vessel's fuel inefficiency, the danger to marine life from its speed, the fear that alien invasive species will be carried to the island, concerns that Oahu folks will crowd Kauai beaches and surf breaks, that traffic will be worsened, that criminals will arrive with drugs, and so on."

Service to Maui Halted

On Monday, a lower court judge on Maui issued a temporary restraining order preventing further docking at Kahului.

It's clear that further court action will occur this week. If service is halted pending an environmental impact study, it could be anywhere between a few months to a couple of years before service could resume.

Since the State failed to conduct the environmental study, the operators of the Hawaii Superferry are threatening legal action against the State to recover damages.

Who Loses?

Needless to say, the future of the Hawaii Superferry is now in question. The losers in any delay in service are the owners, operators and employees of Hawaii Superferry, local businessmen who hoped to use the Superferry to enhance their businesses and local residents who could use the ferry to visit the neighbor islands. Last, but not least, are visitors who might want to experience this new mode of transportation.

Blame can, and will, be pointed at many including the protesters, the owners and operators of the Hawaii Superferry, the Hawaii Supreme Court and clearly those in State government who sidestepped the law by allowing service to begin without the required study.

Does it then surprise anyone when Hawaii continually ranks at the bottom of all states when evaluating business climate? After over ten years covering Hawaii, this doesn't surprise me at all.

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