A Fresh Look At An Inter-Island Ferry System

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By Mufi Hannemann

In 2010, I called for re-establishing an inter-island ferry service for all residents of Hawaii.  I believed then, as I do now, that a ferry system will improve our quality of life and provide an economic boost for our state, not only by creating jobs, but by saving Hawaii’s businesses millions in shipping costs. Think of the farmers and small businesses that will see their cost of doing business decrease with another option to choose from for moving their products, goods and services to the marketplace.  It would also provide a safety net during emergencies and give families another less expensive choice to visit relatives on other islands.

When I filed to run for governor on the Hawaii Independent Party ticket, I repeated this call for reconsideration of an inter-island ferry service; one that will be used by Hawaii residents and visitors much as the state-run Alaska Marine Highway System and Washington State Ferries serve the people of those states.

With the exception of some critics who remain opposed to this notion, the response to re-examine an inter-island ferry system from a fresh perspective has been overwhelmingly positive.  This is especially true at the numerous talks story sessions that I have had throughout the state in order to learn firsthand from island residents of their wants and desires for a better future.

To begin with, unlike the prior state administration’s political and legal missteps that accompanied the last Superferry attempt, I will propose a different process this time around where prior to implementation, we make sure that we thoroughly examine not only environmental concerns, but procedural issues as well.

Just as the Honolulu Rail Transit Project had to undergo rigorous environmental reviews, public comment and legal scrutiny, so too should any inter-island ferry proposal.  All impacts of creating a ferry service should be openly vetted and evaluated.

 

Of course, consideration must be given first and foremost to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and all relevant state and local environmental disclosure laws which protect not only the marine environment, but our residents. Other considerations would include transportation demand, economic impacts, cost effectiveness, safety and regulatory compliance.

I am committed to conducting an environmental impact study and I will insist that we adhere to an open and through state wide vetting process.  The lack of transparency must not be repeated.

Ferry service comes in all sizes, speeds, amenities and costs.  Around the world ferries serve potential rough water areas like the North and Irish Seas, the English Channel, the Gulf of Alaska, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean near the Canary Islands, as well calmer seas such as those found in Puget Sound and the Alaska Inland Passage.

To determine the best type of vessel and operation to serve Hawaiian waters, I will consult with experts in the field, as well as meet regularly with the four county mayors through a newly created Hawaii Council of Leaders that I have proposed to enable collaborative deliberations of this sort to take place.  I will carefully solicit their input on the type of ferry service that would best serve their respective counties.  Public outreach will include many open meetings with citizens around the state where all of the concerns raised by the Superferry in its brief time of operation, as well as issues and needs involving any type of ferry service, will be on the table.

To facilitate this process, I will appoint a working group to examine all sides of issues related to ferry service. This will include supporters of an inter-island ferry system, as well as those concerned about such factors as marine animal protection, the threat of invasive species, the impact of vehicle traffic on a destination and resource protection. This task force will be similar to one I convened as Honolulu mayor to study issues surrounding the fate of Oahu’s decaying Natatorium that included both proponents and opponents of full restoration.  This group developed the recommendations that the state and county are now planning to implement.

I am hopeful that strong government support, coupled with great public demand, will lead to private investors coming forward to work with the state in a public-private partnership to create a new “marine highway system ” that will benefit us all.  Passenger reports during the Superferry experience demonstrated that ridership was steadily increasing and the most recent Star-Advertiser survey indicated 87% of our people would support the return of an inter- island ferry service provided that an EIS be done. Moreover, retired Admiral Thomas Fargo, who was the former Superferry Executive, is right on point when he says that “there are few archipelagos in the world that don’t have a ferry system to serve the needs of the people.”

Even many Superferry opponents recognize that having a cheaper way to get people, vehicles and products between islands, if done correctly, will be beneficial for both residents and visitors.  Today, large cruise ships still routinely travel our island chain without problems.

Let’s put real, current and up-to-date facts on the table and have a combination of government officials, especially county mayors, ordinary citizens and an appointed working group examine them in a non-confrontational manner. This time we will include a thorough environmental impact study,  a critical step that was skipped by the last administration. Armed with this new information, a governor with a strong record and reputation of being pro- business could then actively solicit a private partner to invest in Hawaii again. It will take time, but it will be worth it if we go through the process openly and correctly. After all, isn’t that what you want from your governor – someone who respects and responds to your desires?

 

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