All they have to fear is the ferry itself
IF THERE is a speech that Hawaii's lawmakers recite by rote, it is the "We must diversify our economy" line.
When the diversification means actually changing something, then the legislators' eyes grow wide and they take a step back.
That's the expression now as the Legislature toys with the plans for a ferry system between the islands.
Long sought as a way to spur the economy, shift the population, and encourage and manage growth, easy transportation between the islands is now a being painted by opponents as a menace and a threat.
Nearly three years ago, Hawaii Superferry started plans to provide daily service between Oahu, Maui and Kauai, with routes to the Big Island also envisioned.
The plan brought together Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, plus a mix of Democratic and GOP heavyweights on the Superferry board.
THE FERRY system between the islands appeared to fit neatly into a long list of Democratic goals. Former Gov. John A. Burns had encouraged the neighbor islands to develop their own economies, and former Lt. Gov. Tom Gill had urged the neighbor islands to establish a sustainable agricultural base to provide food for the state.
The Superferry supporters say that small family farms will be moving fresh, organic crops to Honolulu markets. Lingle argues that sports teams will be able to travel with their buses to off-island events.
But opponents are horrified as they imagine secluded neighbor island beaches and fishing spots covered with Oahu campers.
The state Senate is now into its second year of questioning the ferry service. With the first protest on Maui coming from canoe clubs saying the ferry would crowd them out of the harbor, Maui's senators have questioned the Superferry.
Environmentalists' calls for an impact statement for the service were rejected in the courts, but the Senate is now considering forcing either the state or Hawaii Superferry to perform more studies.
FOR TWO years, the Superferry has not engaged in much public debate with its opponents, so that those wishing the ferry to just go away defined the argument.
"We have not done enough to explain to the people," says John Lehman, whose private equity firm has invested $58 million in the Superferry.
Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, notes that other Pacific basin harbor operators are investing billions in modern, high-tech harbors while Hawaii's harbors can barely keep up.
To those far away from the debate, it must seem odd that a state that wants to sustain an agricultural base and support a strong new economic engine are so skittish when a new ship actually pulls into the harbor.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org