The state spent $4.3 million to build a ferry terminal on Pier 19, even though no plans are in place to operate a commuter ferry.

Ferry tales

Unfazed by past failures, the state
plans for commuting by sea

Previous attempts

By Russ Lynch

The state is nearly finished building a $4.3 million interisland ferry terminal on Pier 19, despite the fact that there is no ferry system to use it and despite previous attempts showing interisland and Oahu coastal ferries are not popular with commuters.

But state Harbors Division planners said federal money was available for the building and would have gone to waste if it wasn't built. At the same time, a request for proposals by fellow state agency Aloha Tower Development Corp. to redevelop Piers 5 and 6 calls for an additional terminal for coastal Oahu ferries.

Despite the lessons of history, the government is not yet ready to give up on ferry tales.

In fact, said harbor planning officials, there are several businesses expressing interest in running an interisland ferry, a commuter ferry from West Oahu to downtown Honolulu, or both.

An expensive rebuild of the Pier 2 area to create a new cruise-ship terminal is on hold and the Pier 19 facility can be used by cruise ships when the docks around Aloha Tower are busy, officials said.

If an interisland ferry system can be developed, the space around the new structure is broad enough to handle ferries that allow vehicles to drive on and off, state planners said.

Many efforts have been tried. In the 1970s, Seaflite Inc. ran interisland hydrofoil ferries, connecting Honolulu with Lahaina, Maui, and Kona on the Big Island. The ships hit objects in the water and had mechanical difficulties that sometimes left queasy passengers wallowing in the channels for hours, belying the "flight" idea of the hydrofoils.

Whether Seaflite might have made it financially is an open question. Its parent company, suffering financial losses elsewhere, shut it down in 1978.

Other ferries in the islands have worked, such as Expeditions, running from Lahaina to Lanai, and Sea Link of Hawaii, which runs a Maui-Molokai ferry. Both are still operating.

Six photographs stitched together show the expanse of Honolulu Harbor, which must accommodate mixed uses in tight quarters.
Click image for larger version. (67K)

Champions of interisland and intraisland ferries have included Sen. John Hulten and jeweler Connie Corned, both now deceased, and former transportation director E. Alvey Wright, now in his 90s but still writing letters pushing his vision for transportation.

There are still believers in a commuter ferry to run from West Oahu to Honolulu, but previous tries never succeeded financially.

The state has tried several ways to do that and the most recent, the Wikiwiki ferry, carried some 35,000 passengers in a trial of little more than a year, averaging 1,100 riders a week from a Navy housing area at Iroquois Point. People loved the commute of less than an hour to downtown Honolulu but they didn't love paying for it. When it was a free state-sponsored service, it did well; when a $3 fare was introduced, ridership plummeted.

Harbors Division officials say new ferry ideas are fine, but Honolulu Harbor has a more important function as the entry point for well over 90 percent of the goods used and consumed in Hawaii.

Some cities, such as San Francisco, have had been able to move cargo operations somewhere else (Oakland, in San Francisco's case) but Hawaii doesn't have that luxury, harbor planners say. They need to mix the needs of cruise ships, fishing vessels, local commuters and commercial freight in a limited amount of space.

Taking all that into account, the state is going to take a new look at its Harbors 2020 plan to incorporate changes since the plan's guidelines were drawn up in 1997. The shift of the "interisland terminal" to Pier 19 from the area around Piers 24-26 was one of them.

Further Ewa along the waterfront, passengers would have seen only commercial-industrial activities around them. At Pier 19, they would see the condominiums and office buildings of downtown Honolulu, rustic fishing boats and Aloha Tower.

The Wikiwiki ferry was popular with commuters, until the $3 fare kicked in.

But the main question remains: Will there be passengers?

For now, the Pier 19 facility may see some -- those embarking on cruise ships. The state wanted to move the Foreign Trade Zone away from Pier 2 and build a new cruise ship terminal there, but that idea is on hold because American Classic Voyages, which planned to have three cruise ships homeported in Honolulu, filed bankruptcy and closed down.

That leaves Piers 9, 10 and 11 at Aloha Tower and Pier 19 as the only alternatives in a fast growing business that at times gets jammed up, with international cruise passengers having to disembark at Pier 2, where there is no facility to greet them.

Pier 19 became a possibility because Hawaii could use part of a $25 million grant shared by Hawaii and Alaska to help intrastate transportation.

Harbors Division officials said they hope to reopen their 2020 plan after the 2003 legislative session is over, but are concerned that an emphasis on ferries and development along the harbor would take away facilities required for the basics of shipping goods into Hawaii. They said they have lost land to the Aloha Tower Development Corp., the state agency responsible for creating commercial uses for much of the waterfront.

Technically, that is true, said Daniel Orodenker, a project manager at the corporation. His agency has a ground lease with the state for Piers 5 through 14 and development rights as far as Pier 23, he said.

But those rights are subject to rules, Orodenker said.

"We have to reimburse the Department of Transportation for any lost revenues they may have been getting off the properties," he said. "Whatever maritime activities we impact, we will redevelop or put back somewhere else in the harbor."

Honolulu Harbor abuts downtown, providing commuter possibilities from West Oahu, state officials figure.

Meanwhile, he is proud of what the development corporation has achieved.

"The Pier 10 and 11 area (location of the Aloha Tower Marketplace) was pretty run down," he said. "What we've done is turn them into more modernized or useable facilities.

"Our goal through all this is to cause more development of the waterfront to turn it into a more useful, vibrant area, more people-friendly and at the same time not take away from Harbors (Division) what they need," Orodenker said.

Meanwhile, one state use outside of ATDC's area has fallen on hard times. The Department of Transportation spent more than $14 million to turn a former pineapple shipping area, Pier 35, into a "fishing village" that was to house fish auctions and a number of other activities related to commercial fishing.

In July, methane gas was found to be seeping into the area from petroleum-polluted subsoil and the whole project had to be put on hold. A method of getting rid of the pollution has been worked out but it will take most of next year to complete before businesses can move in, state officials say.



Play it again

Previous attempts at operating ferries:

>> From October 1999 to December 2000 a trial project sponsored by the state Department of Transportation ran the Wikiwiki ferry, using a Norwegian-built 136-passenger "Foilcat" with speeds up to 50 knots ran from Kalaeloa (Barbers Point) Harbor to Pier 8 in downtown Honolulu. The project also tried Iroquois Point and Middle Loch (Pearl Harbor) to Honolulu. Altogether some 35,000 people used the service in the $3.5 million state-funded trial but business dropped off sharply when a $3 fare was introduced.

>> In 1992, a test project by the state Department of Transportation called HOTS (Hawaii Ocean Transits System) ran a motor-driven "wave piercing" catamaran from Barbers Point to Honolulu but stopped after three months because of lack of support from the commuting public.

>> From 1975 to 1978 Seaflite Inc. ran hydrofoils between Honolulu and Maui and Kaui and the Big Island. In 1978 the parent company failed and cut off the Hawaii business, which experienced mixed results despite having three Boeing jet-engined vessels in service. The vessels sometimes broke down at sea, ran into floating logs and had a variety of problems.

E-mail to Business Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --