JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@ STARBULLETIN.COM
U.S. Air Force Sgt. Joshua Birch peered out one of the forward windows with his son Noah yesterday aboard the Hawaii Superferry Alakai at Pier 19 in Honolulu Harbor.
Ferry sets sail in calm before political storm
Demands of ferry are stricter than rules for others
STORY SUMMARY »
The Hawaii Superferry is giving a few free rides to military families this weekend as opponents and backers of the interisland service get ready for a busy week of debate.
The Superferry booked about 750 people each for five trips yesterday and today in waters off Oahu. The warmly received trips were part engine maintenance and part public relations for the idled ship Alakai.
But the political sailing is expected to get choppier for the service today on Kauai when the state Senate holds the first of three hearings on a bill to allow the ferry to operate while an environmental impact study is being done.
The bill will go before the Legislature in a special session later this week. It does not include a set of 29 conditions demanded by environmentalists whose court challenge has stopped the service so far. Many of those conditions are not required of other, established interisland carriers.
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The Hawaii Superferry Alakai is like a car. It needs to be used every once in a while. Unlike a car, the vessel can fit hundreds of military troops and their families.
As a way to say mahalo to the military, and to help keep the 882-ton vessel in top shape, Superferry officials invited military families to a free cruise around the southern end of Oahu this weekend.
Because of the high volume of inquiries, Superferry officials increased the number of cruises from three to five, running from yesterday morning through today.
The Superferry also has taken some employee cruises during the past few weeks. Superferry President John Garibaldi said because many of the owners have prior service, they wanted to host free cruises for the military.
"It's like a car or anything mechanical," Garibaldi said of the boat. "If we're going to take her out on the water and run the engines, we might as well put it to great use."
Garibaldi reserved comment on the upcoming interisland public hearings held by the state Senate, starting today on Kauai.
Most of the families interviewed yesterday were curious about the operation, especially with the current controversy.
"The Superferry is one of the greatest things to happen to this state," said Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard Baker as he sat back into his seat.
Baker said he moved to Hawaii just last year and hoped to take the Superferry to the neighbor islands. He said he's optimistic the ferry will run.
"Some people just need something to complain about, and they picked this," he said. "But I think it'll be great for the economy. I really detest going to the airport so this gives us a great option."
Navy Chief Petty Officer Carlos Uri said it was a good opportunity to bring his two daughters out to somewhere new.
"It's different than an airline where you're cramped up," he said. "Here there's plenty of area for the kids to run around and do what they want to do for the trip."
The cruises were good news to about 30 of the recently furloughed 249 Superferry employees, who were brought back for this weekend's trips
"I don't have my sea legs back yet," said steward Karsten Murray, who stumbled as he was cleaning up. "I'm a little wobbly, but I'm not nauseous. We're definitely happy that we're sailing."
Murray said the employees' enthusiasm fed off the fact they were serving some service members who just returned from Iraq.
"It just feels great doing something for them," Murray said. "And at the very least I could serve up some sandwiches, soda and a smile."
Demands of ferry are stricter than rules for others
WAILUKU » Many of the 29 conditions that environmentalists are demanding for a restarted Superferry service are not imposed on interisland airlines and ocean carriers, such as Matson Navigation and Young Bros.
Proposed conditions include requiring the Hawaii Superferry to vacuum the interior and clean the undercarriage of the transported vehicles.
While Matson and Young Bros. require motor vehicles to be cleaned before shipment, the two companies are not required to clean the vehicles themselves.
The debate on restarting the fledgling interisland ferry service heats up today when the state Senate holds the first of three neighbor island meetings in advance of a special legislative session. The Legislature plans to consider a bill that would permit the Hawaii Superferry to sail from Oahu to Maui and Kauai without having to comply with a court order that it wait for an environmental impact statement to be completed.
The bill puts Gov. Linda Lingle in charge of creating and enforcing rules for the Superferry without requiring speed limits or restrictions on vehicles. The bill also would create a committee overseeing Lingle's actions and open an investigation into her administration.
However, the bill does not include the 29 conditions proposed by the opponents whose court actions led to the suspension of the ferry service.
Superferry opponents contend their conditions are different than requirements imposed on other carriers because the ship is a different kind of transportation for Hawaii that brings new threats to the isles' environment.
The groups, including the Sierra Club and Maui Tomorrow, want to bar the Superferry from transporting plants. The airlines, as well as Matson and Young Bros., are allowed to transport plants if they have a state agricultural inspection certificate, except for some selected plants that could spread blights, such as banana and papaya trees.
Opponents want Superferry officials to pay for dog-handler teams at all harbors to detect invasive species and drugs. None of the airlines or ocean carriers such as Young Bros. are required to pay for dog-handler teams.
The conditions also call for at least two state agricultural inspectors at each harbor to check every trunk and engine compartments of vehicles as well as coolers, boxes, trunks and luggage on the Superferry.
State agricultural inspectors conduct spot checks of vehicles and freight now traveling interisland by air and ocean carrier.
Maui groups also want the Superferry to refuse to allow the transport of fishing nets. Airlines, other ocean carriers and fishing boats are able to carry fishing nets interisland.
Attorney Isaac Hall, representing the environmental groups, said the request is justified because the Superferry is a different mode of transportation. The Superferry will be moving more old cars and people intending to camp in remote areas than other carriers, increasing the potential risk of spreading invasive species and depleting rural resources, opponents say.
Hall also said the average speed of interisland ocean carriers is significantly less than the Superferry's 37 knots. The conditions propose that the Superferry travel at 13 knots or less to decrease the risk of collisions with whales and other marine life.
Matson Navigation said it travels 9 knots or less between neighbor islands, and Young Bros. said its barges travel about 8 knots and sometimes 9 knots an hour.
Superferry officials, as well as Lingle, who supports the interisland service, declined comment on the 29 conditions.
The $300 million Superferry project made only one successful run to each island before being stopped by the court on Maui and protesters in the water on Kauai in late August.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.