February 9, 2007

High-Speed Ferry to Connect Hawaiian Islands

By Mike Leidemann

HONOLULU -- Hawaii is scheduled to get its first regular interisland passenger ferry service in more than 25 years this summer, but the project is raising concerns among environmentalists about whale collisions, invasive species and congestion.

Hawaii Superferry launched the first of its new $90 million high-speed catamaran ferries last month in Mobile, Ala., and plans to begin daily trips between Oahu and Maui and Kauai on July 1.

"Hawaii is ripe for this. It's one of the last populated island chains anywhere in the world without some kind of regular ferry service," Superferry Chief Executive Officer John Garibaldi said.

John Sardinha, owner of Astro World Travel on Maui, said the big winners will be families traveling between islands that want to bring their car along for the weekend. "I'm going to use it when I go to see my family in Honolulu. I can pack up the car with everything and bring back the things I buy there," he said.

The ferry company has received almost $200 million in federal maritime loan guarantees to build its ships and has the backing of the state government, which is contributing about $40 million in harbor improvements. A second ferry is scheduled to be operational in 2009, when service will expand to the island of Hawaii.

Some environmentalists and lawmakers argue that the company should be required to complete an environmental impact study before starting operations. They worry that frequent interisland sailings will spread invasive species, raise the possibility of collisions with migrating humpback whales and increase harbor and traffic congestion. Among the invasive species is the noisy coqui frog, which has become established on the Big Island.

"We've been trying for years to control the spread of invasive species. These ferries ... raise the threat to a much greater degree," said Don Reeser, a retired superintendent of Maui's Haleakala National Park. Reeser is a Member of Friends of Haleakala, an environmental group that has tried to delay the start-up until stricter controls have been put in place. The group has lobbied lawmakers and sought public support to require an environmental impact study.

Two other groups, Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition, have joined with the Maui County government in a state lawsuit aimed at delaying the ferry start-up.

State Transportation Director Barry Fukunaga said Hawaii law does not require an environmental impact study, and the state is trying to negotiate a settlement to the lawsuit.

"We don't want to block the ferry. We just want everyone to know what its impact ... will be before it starts operations," Maui Sen. J. Kalani English, head of the transportation committee, said. English and other senators have introduced a bill to require a study.

Garibaldi said the company has developed extensive environmental controls, including a whale-avoidance policy that includes altering the ferries' routes during the winter mating season and strict inspection of boarding vehicles to guard against invasive species. "We've gone well beyond what anyone else has done in this area before," he said.

Hawaii's last flirtation with major interisland ferry service was the short-lived SeaFlite operation in the late 1970s, a start-up doomed by slow service, long delays and plenty of seasick passengers in Hawaii's notoriously choppy channels.

Leidemann reports daily for The Honolulu Advertiser (c) Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>