State’s bad decision steered Superferry into rough seas
The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled that the state erred in exempting the ferry from environmental review.
THE Hawaii Superferry, which residents, the tourist industry and local businesses had greeted enthusiastically when proposed in 2003, could have glided smoothly from concept to boarding.
However, when the state exempted the operation from required environmental review, it set the Superferry on a course that could eventually run it aground.
It did not have to be this way.
The Hawaii Supreme Court, in a terse, swift ruling Thursday, unanimously agreed with three citizen and environmental groups that the Department of Transportation erred when it released the ferry company from the review, ordering a judgment in their favor.
The ruling could have delayed the ferry's start-up set for Tuesday, but Superferry officials brazenly moved up its initial launch to tomorrow. The act, which was encouraged by the state's decision to allow the ferry to operate despite the ruling, turned up the heat in an already simmering conflict. Earlier Thursday, a circuit judge in another suit had ordered the state to prepare Maui streets for the traffic the ferry was expected to generate.
When plaintiffs' attorneys seek an injunction come Monday to stop what they believe is an illegal operation, the ferry might find itself dockside, further entangled in legal ropes.
The situation is the result of a bad decision by the state. In its zeal, which was not misplaced, to help an enterprise that could prove beneficial to a spectrum of economic interests as well as to people wanting an alternative to air travel, officials short-cut laws designed to protect and sustain Hawaii's environmental health.
With a majority of the public favoring the ferry, officials could have steered through the review process, mitigating concerns about the inadvertent spread of non-native and invasive plants and animals, traffic problems at ports and adjacent roadways, illegal drugs and other contraband, and endangering whales and marine animals.
Instead, they chose what they thought would be an easier route and, in the process, shut out the public's voice, even arguing unsuccessfully in court that citizens had no standing to challenge their decisions.
Earlier this year, when Maui, Kauai and Hawaii County Councils, responding to their constituents, declared their wish for an environmental review, state lawmakers introduced legislation to that end. But in an act of power politics, Maui Rep. Joe Souki, chairman of the Transportation Committee, refused to consider the bill.
Souki and other state officials asserted it was unfair to subject the ferry to a process that had not been applied to other harbor users. That argument belies the fact that the ferry would be a unique service that in a single week could transport thousands of private vehicles, agricultural products and cargo as well as people with minimal inspection, security and documentation.
The bill was a good compromise that would have allowed the ferry operation to proceed on schedule while an environmental assessment, at state expense, was conducted, and could have intercepted the legal challenges.
Should an injunction halt the ferry, it would not be surprising if the company sues the state for its losses, adding to legal costs, the animosity engendered in the community and the time loss already incurred in this fiasco.