There are certainly very big differences between Honolulu rail and the Hawaii Superferry.

For one, the Superferry actually was built and operated for a brief spell. Given the legal challenges, including the one that led this week to a temporary halt in construction, it’s not clear that will ever be the case with rail.

For another, even if the 20-mile rail line is built and an actual train connects East Kapolei to Ala Moana, it’s unlikely that the rail system will cause people to vomit, as was the case when the Superferry crossed the Kaiwi Channel or rounded West Maui on its way to Kahului Harbor.

But, there sure are a number of analogies between the two controversial projects, some that give pause and perhaps a little instruction. Civil Beat compares and contrasts.


Surf and Turf

The parallels between Hawaii Superferry and Honolulu rail are obvious.

Both projects, for example, are (or were, in the case of the Superferry, but we’ll stick to present tense here) transportation projects that seek to link distant communities.

Like the rail project, the Superferry operated as one route with a planned expansion. The rail could one day include spurs to Waikiki and the University of Hawaii in Manoa; the Superferry connected Honolulu with Maui and (very briefly) Kauai with later routes planned to Hilo and Kawaihae on the Big Island.

Rail and ferries have a long history in the islands, including the trains used during the plantation period and the small passenger ferry system in operation between Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

A rail system for Honolulu has been bandied about for decades. In 1992, a proposal fell short by just one vote, thanks to Honolulu City Council member Rene Mansho.

A more elaborate ferry system has been considered before, too, though the rough waters between Oahu and the neighbor islands — especially during the winter months — has proved a deterrent.


Recall that the Alakai, the first of two Superferries (the second never made it here), was an aluminum-hulled catamaran that could hold more than 800 passengers and 250 vehicles. Yet, even the 800-ton, 349-foot Alakai was unpleasantly rocked by Hawaiian waters. Wisely, the ship’s store sold Dramamine.1

Arguments for building rail and a ferry, meanwhile, include the fact that successful rail and ferry systems operate in mainland cities such as Seattle and Portland, Ore. If they could do it, why couldn’t we?


Here’s two reasons: Puget Sound is a heck of a lot smoother than the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and the Big Island, and Portland has a light-rail, at-grade system as opposed to Honolulu’s elevated rail system.2

Law and Politics

The Superferry was a private project that depended on public support while rail is a public project that includes a lot of private interests.

Both projects involve government support, with Daniel K. Inouye, Peter Carlisle, Kirk Caldwell and Mufi Hannemann among the most visible proponents of rail and Linda Lingle and the Hawaii Legislature leading the charge on the Superferry.

Lingle, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been lambasted by Democratic opponent Mazie Hirono for failure of leadership on the Superferry. But Lingle strongly defends her actions, and it’s important to remember that it was a Democrat-dominated Legislature led by Calvin Say and Colleen Hanabusa that carved out the exemption to Hawaii environmental law for the Superferry to operate.

As with rail and the archaeological survey, it was the Hawaii Supreme Court that ruled an EIS was necessary for the Superferry to get the A-OK. Why educated lawmakers, engineers and business executives didn’t think through the obvious legal requirements seems unfathomable; common sense was sacrificed for expediency’s sake.

Both projects were subject to loud, dramatic, persistent opposition.

During early city council hearings for rail, one critic played a recording of what he believed the train would sound like as it passed through downtown Honolulu. Whether accurate or not, the suggestion was that the decibel level was sufficient to shake First Hawaiian Center.

The Superferry, meanwhile, was prohibited from entering Nawiliwilili Harbor on its maiden — and only — voyage to the Garden Isle by a flotilla of protesters, including one on a surfboard with middle finger raised high.

Comparing Mangoes and Guava

There are obvious differences between Honolulu rail and the Hawaii Superferry, too.

For one, it was small, passionate and tireless groups working together that stopped the Superferry, namely the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition.

For rail, it is the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation on behalf of a Native Hawaiian woman and, in a separate legal challenge, Ben Cayetano, Cliff Slater and Randy Roth. While some have tried to depict them as such, “environmentalist” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing Cayetano, Slater and Roth.

The two projects are not even close in terms of cost, either.

The rail estimate is $5.26 billion, while the cost to build the two ferries was about $180 million. (The U.S. Navy not long ago bought the Alakai and sister vessel the Huakai for $35 million.)

But then, the state was left holding a $40 million unpaid tab for upgrades to state harbors to accommodate the Alakai. Oahu taxpayers are paying part of the rail costs through a general excise tax hike, and one-third of the project is to come from federal money.

Business Models

Which leads to the final comparison between Honolulu rail and the Hawaii Superferry.

It was never clear whether Superferry had a sustainable business model, in part because it operated for less than two years and halted business in 2009 only after a final high court ruling against it. But some financial experts who did the math said things would not pencil out.

While it was attractive for some to drive their cars onto the Alakai and travel the three hours to Maui (not counting ingress and egress), and while some businesses were shipping goods back and forth, there was no obvious advantage compared with Young Brothers or Hawaiian Airlines, which offered more routes and serviced more regions.

Superferry executives offered multiple discounts, but there were plenty of empty seats on a lot of the Alakai’s trips.

As for rail, there is a lot of debate about what the actual ridership will be and whether it will really take vehicles off roads and highways. There were 755,425 motor vehicles registered in the City & County of Honolulu last year and about 953,000 people in 2010 — and the latter figure includes those not of driving age.

For better or worse, we are a car-loving people.


It seems strange that an island state dependent on tourism has no ferry system connecting all the major islands, just as it seems strange that it takes so long to drive the relative short distance from Honolulu to the West Side.

I rode the Superferry once and loved sitting at the small aft section that allowed travelers to inhale fresh air, as the rest of the vessel was closed to the elements. And I have sat for hours in traffic on my way to Makakilo, where I resided for a short time, or taken the 90-minute bus ride from Kapolei to Ala Moana when my car was in the shop.

Which brings me to my last point: Anyone remember TheBoat?

TheBoat was a city-run system that provided a one-hour transit between Barbers Point and Aloha Tower — roughly the same areas that rail aims to connect — during the Hannemann administration. Dedicated feeder buses helped connect each terminal with neighborhoods.

It didn’t last — it was not a moneymaker, and the service was dropped during one of the city’s inevitable cost-cutting rounds. But it was a fairly creative idea, and the few times I took it, it was a delight to breathe in the salt air, sip a cup of coffee and read my newspaper rather than negotiate the Halawa Interchange in my Hyundai.

I don’t have a solution to Honolulu rail, and I don’t know if another “super ferry” will ever again ply Hawaii waters. But I do hope our leaders can learn the lessons from both.

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