Compromise could temper divisiveness of Superferry
Hawaii has spent the past few weeks in "Superferry crisis." The divisiveness in the community has been surprising and alarming. Now it's time to put the finger-pointing behind us and focus on understanding how we got to this juncture, finding a solution that allows the Superferry to set sail and learning a lesson as we chart a future course. The matter is now primarily before the courts, but the Legislature also must be prepared to address what will probably still be a controversy next session.
For one thing, the state environmental review law is not clear regarding what projects require an assessment, and that has contributed to the confusion. The Legislature must take a hard look at how we can tighten up the law. In 2005, a decision was made by the state Department of Transportation, based on a good-faith interpretation of the law, that the Superferry was exempt from preparing an environmental assessment.
This year, a Senate bill proposed to overturn that decision. The bill required that a full environmental impact statement was necessary prior to the Superferry's launch. Contrary to what has been reported, the bill that crossed over to the House still required the EIS prior to the ferry's start of operations, and was not a so-called compromise bill. The bill's language was ambiguous, and I received no communication from the Senate to clarify it.
At that time, I chose not to hear the bill in the House. I didn't want to jeopardize the Superferry's ability to start operations this summer by reversing the state's decision at about the same time as the scheduled launch. It would have been a terrible message to send to business. Also, the Superferry had conducted environmental studies outside the formal assessment process. That said, the Supreme Court has ruled that the EA is required, and we must respectfully accept that ruling.
In the short term, we should reach a compromise under which the Superferry is allowed to operate while conducting the EA. This could include requiring stricter safeguards. Measures the Superferry already planned to take to ease traffic congestion, prevent movement of invasive species and avoid disrupting ocean life also might be strengthened.
The long-term solutions are more of a challenge.
The animosity of the neighbor island residents would not have risen to such intensity if we had resolved, or at least relieved, some of their traffic, housing and infrastructure problems. They understandably vented their anger and frustration on the Superferry, which they saw as a harbinger of further congestion, high prices and intrusion into their lifestyles.
The Superferry saga showed that as Hawaii continues to grow, we have to really evaluate what's important to us. It is no longer as simple as environment vs. business or progress vs. maintaining old ways. I doubt we'd have seen such acrimony and protectionism from some groups on the neighbor islands were it not for the explosive growth in population and tourism experienced in their communities and the side effects felt by residents. The past few weeks have demonstrated many voices are talking about our changing state. They deserve to be heard.
People have described our situation as a "fiasco," a "disaster." That's not how we want the world to picture Hawaii. Let's focus our talents and energy on learning from this and finding solutions with input from all stakeholders.
Rep. Joe Souki, a Democrat, is speaker emeritus and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He represents District 8 (Wailuku, Waihee, Waiehu, Puuohala, Waikapu).