Thursday, March 10, 2005

full steam ahead

Harbor upgrade plans and
legislative work spell smooth
sailing for the interisle system

The state appears to be moving ahead with plans to accommodate the scheduled 2006 arrival of an interisland ferry system while a key $40 million appropriation from the Legislature has not yet been finalized.

Public notice of the Department of Transportation's plans to upgrade state harbors for the ferry began running in newspapers yesterday.

Is it a done deal?

"We certainly hope so," Barry Fukunaga, deputy director for the department's Harbors Division, said in an e-mail message to the Star-Bulletin.

While lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle cautioned that the approval is not final until the two-year $8.9 billion budget is passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, all signs point to the funding being approved.

"I don't think it's a done deal ... but I think there's a feeling that we'd like to see that happen," said Senate Transportation Chairwoman Lorraine Inouye (D, Hilo-Honokaa). "I see and have heard no word of any objections from the money committees at this point."

Opposition has come mostly from environmentalists, who say the ferry could spread noxious plants and pets between the islands and that its potential effects should be studied further.

Inouye's committee tabled a proposal last week that would have required a comprehensive environmental impact statement be performed before the ferry begins service.

Officials with Hawaii Superferry Inc., the private company that plans to operate the ferry system, told lawmakers earlier this year that unless the state funds the harbor upgrades, the project would likely sink.

Chief Executive Officer John Garibaldi said about $200 million in financing for the boats and the use of state harbors would fall through unless the $40 million was approved this year. The company has promised to repay the cost of the upgrades.

"There is no alternative," Fukunaga said in his e-mail. "If the state is not able to proceed with its part of the effort ... (Superferry) will not be able to obtain their financial support."

Lawmakers preparing the state's two-year financial plan have advanced the $40 million for harbors.

Although Lingle originally proposed that the funding be done through general obligation bonds, lawmakers changed the language to use reimbursable bonds.

By borrowing money with general obligation bonds, no collateral is issued, and the government assumes it will be able to repay any debt through taxation or revenue from projects. Reimbursable bonds would hold the company responsible for repaying the debt.

Lingle said yesterday she supports the change and would notify lawmakers of her approval.

"We have to wait for the session to be over and for them to vote on the budget, but I think everyone recognizes the exciting potential the Superferry brings," Lingle said.

The first of two 340-foot catamaran ferries is 25 percent built and scheduled for delivery at the end of 2006. The harbor upgrades are needed to raise piers and docks because of the size of the ferries.

They would shuttle vehicles and passengers between islands and allow cars to roll directly on or off.

State Harbors Division
Hawaii Superferry Inc.

E-mail to City Desk


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