Opponents attempt to stop Superferry
Legislators might seek an environmental review wanted by the boats' opponents
Just months before the Superferry's planned launch, critics and thousands of petitioners are pushing state lawmakers to scuttle the start of the interisland service, saying it should never have been given the go-ahead.
Bill is a barnacle on the ferry's hull
Stumbling Block: The Hawaii Superferry is facing new obstacles just four months before launch of the first ferry service linking all major Hawaiian islands.
The Trouble: Thousands of petitioners and critics are demanding the Superferry conduct an environmental study for the service. The state Senate is considering a bill that would require such a report.
The Ferry Says: Hawaii Superferry officials say they have exceeded environmental requirements, even without being ordered to do a study. The company plans to hire whale lookouts for the boats and inspect vehicles for invasive species.
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Senate Bill 1276
Without public comment, transportation officials exempted the Hawaii Superferry from an environmental review typically required of projects that use government money -- in this case, $40 million worth of harbor improvements on Oahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kauai.
"There's the perception that this is being ramrodded through and pushed down people's throats," said Ron Sturtz, president of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, a community advocacy group that sued the state for an environmental study. "There are many people on the Hawaiian Islands who feel this project is being driven by big money and big politics."
Opposition to the Superferry has been growing in the state Legislature and on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.
The effort to scuttle the two ferries, which together cost $190 million to build, is mounting late in the process. The first ferry -- a four-story, 900-passenger, 250-car catamaran built especially for Hawaii at a shipyard in Mobile, Ala. -- is just about ready for delivery and set to launch July 1. The second is being built.
The first Superferry is to make daily trips between Honolulu and the islands of Kauai and Maui with one-way fares of $42 per person and $55 per vehicle. The second ferry would add service to the Big Island. Currently, the only regular interisland passenger travel is by air, with one-way fares ranging from $29 to more than $100.
Opponents cite worries over traffic congestion, collisions with humpback whales, the spread of invasive species and strains on harbor space.
A recent opinion by the state Environmental Council said the Department of Transportation erred when it granted the exemption from a review, and about 6,000 Kauai residents have signed a petition against the ferry. The County Councils on the neighbor islands have voted on resolutions asking for closer environmental scrutiny of the Superferry.
A bill in the state Senate would force the Superferry to submit to an environmental impact statement, which can turn into a lengthy process that would stall service indefinitely.
"The Department of Transportation made a mistake when they granted the exemption," said Sen. Gary Hooser (D, Kauai-Niihau). "It was a bad decision, and it was a decision that did not follow the letter or the intent of the law."
Superferry officials argue they have exceeded environmental requirements, even without a government-ordered review.
"It's unfortunate that the debate so far has been about the idea that somehow we're an environmental problem. We think we're an environmental poster child," said Superferry Chairman John Lehman, former Navy secretary and member of the 9/11 Commission.
For example, the ferry will hire two lookouts to watch for whales, alter its routes and slow down during peak whale season. Its employees will inspect vehicles for invasive species and prohibit mud-caked cars from making the voyage. The unloading of cars from the ship will not cause significant traffic, Lehman said.
The decision to exempt the Superferry from having to go through an environmental impact statement was made in 2004 by Barry Fukunaga, who was harbor director at the time and is now interim director of the state Department of Transportation. He consulted with the Office of Environmental Quality Control and county governments, but no public hearings were held.
Fukunaga said there was no reason to target the Superferry when other modes of transportation do not need to take on environmental reviews.
"We don't think we'd require anything different for any other vessel," he said. "You're not going to have an environmental assessment for every airplane that lands in the airport and every ship that comes into the harbor. ... This is an 11th-hour effort to stop the ferry from entering service."
Mike Faye, chairman of the Environmental Council, contends that transportation officials should have looked at the far-reaching environmental effects of the ferry and forced an independent review. The Environmental Council is a citizen board responsible for making environmental impact statement rules.
"It's pretty clear that a project of this magnitude should have had an environmental review," Faye said. "They chose to pick some narrow things in their exemption list, used it, and didn't look at the whole picture."
The bill requiring an environmental review passed its committee last week and will be voted on by the full Senate this week. If Senate Bill 1276 passes, it would cross over to the House, where it will likely face obstacles.
State Rep. Joe Souki, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said previously he does not plan to hear the proposal because it is unfair to single out the Superferry. Souki (D, Waihee-Wailuku) declined comment for this story.
Even if the bill does not pass, Faye suggested, a consultant could be hired to do an informal environmental study.
"It's not too late to start addressing these things," he said.
Two lawsuits calling for environmental evaluations, one before the state Supreme Court and another in Maui Circuit Court, are also pending.