Crew members John Davies, left, and Rolf Clifford had lunch yesterday in one of the passenger lounges of the superferry "Spirit of Ontario," docked at Pier 19 in Honolulu. The press were given a tour of the ship in advance of the planned 2006 launch of the first Hawaii ferry system in many years.

Here today, driven to Maui

Hawaii's economy and the lives of its people are headed for significant changes in light of a planned ferry system that will essentially make it possible to "drive" from Honolulu to Maui or the Big Island.

Showing off an Australian-built high-speed catamaran at the state's new but idle interisland ferry terminal at Pier 19, the Hawaii Superferry company said its planned introduction of a bigger version of the ship will forever change Hawaii's total dependence on air transportation.

The state Department of Transportation and the operating company have signed a lease for Hawaii Superferry to set up its offices and operations at Pier 19 in Honolulu Harbor, where the state last year completed an interisland ferry terminal without a ferry. The company said it will have interisland ferries operating in about two years.

"We're taking the friction out of our economy," said Tim Dick, a venture capital expert and founder and chairman of Hawaii Superferry. He spoke at a news conference aboard Spirit of Ontario 1, which was doing a show-and-tell in Hawaii on its way to service between Toronto, Canada, and Rochester, N.Y.

No other state is totally reliant on air transportation to get from county to county, Dick said. Operating costs for the ferries, and therefore passenger fares and freight rates, will be lower than the airlines can provide, he said. Hawaii Superferry has registered "H-4" as an operating trade name, to show its role as part of an interstate highway system.

"We're lowering the whole cost of living here," he said. Acknowledging that the numbers could change before the first ferry gets operating, Dick said the current numbers show the passenger round-trip fare "should be less than $100," or about half many current airline fares, and a car should go for about one and a half times the passenger fare.

Traveling at well over 40 miles an hour in waves up to close to 15 feet from trough to top, the ferry will take about three hours to get to Maui or Kauai and four hours to Kawaihae on the Big Island. The ship slows if the waves get bigger. It will carry up to 900 passengers, plus 282 cars and as many as 20 trucks.

Spirit of Ontario 1 shows the kind of comfort Hawaii passengers can expect. Seats are airline-style, but bigger and more comfortable.

Air conditioning hums silently throughout the ship and the engines were quiet even when running on full power.

Austal Ltd., an Australian company that has built some 24 similar vessels that are in use around the world, will build the Hawaii ships in Mobile, Ala., at Austal USA, a partnership with the U.S. firm Bender Shipbuilding and Repair.

The ships will be 340 feet long, about one-third longer than the vessel being demonstrated in Hawaii this weekend.

Four stories high, they will feature luxury seating, several restaurants and, above all, comfort, the developers said.

The company -- headed by Dick and including long-time Hawaii airline expert John Garibaldi and waterfront-management veteran Terry White -- said it has its financing in place.

The company said it has raised more than $100 million and expects the first ship to cost about $60 million. It will also need federal financial guarantees, but officials said they are confident the ferry system will get those because of the recognized need to shift away from total reliance on air transport.

One reason Hawaii Superferry expects to get federal support is the way it can help the military. Austal USA executive Chris Pemberton said the Hawaii ship could move an entire Stryker brigade, with all its vehicles and personnel, from Oahu to the Big Island in 48 hours. Current military systems would take at least a week, he said.

The Hawaii Superferry has already received public support from U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye and Gov. Linda Lingle.

The first Hawaii ferry is scheduled to arrive in the islands in February 2006 and go into service in November of that year.


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