WASHINGTON — Sen. Daniel Inouye has long been a champion of the Honolulu rail project, but these days there’s another major transportation project on his mind.
“You want to know what some of my dreams are like?” Inouye said in an interview with Civil Beat earlier this month. “A reasonable ferry system that one can afford to pay (for).”
Inouye doesn’t mention the now-defunct Superferry by name, but what he describes sounds a lot like the system that was shut down amid backlash from environmentalists and a subsequent state Supreme Court decision in 2009. Hawaii Superferry, Inc. went bankrupt in the months that followed.
If Hawaii could get a ferry system going again, Inouye said it would be an economic boon.
“If you’re on Molokai, you could work in Waikiki,” Inouye said. “It would make a difference. Then you can go home and open up a business, so everything starts moving. I like to connect people.”
Inouye isn’t the first to attempt to revive the ferry system. Several lawmakers have made efforts to bring back some iteration of the service in recent years. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he wanted to bring back the Superferry during his 2010 run for Hawaii governor.
At the time, Neil Abercrombie — who defeated Hannemann in the Democratic primary and went on to become governor — called the idea a “fantasy,” according to KITV. Abercrombie said that the return of a ferry system would require a public-private partnership, or some sort of arrangement with the U.S. military. A spokeswoman for the governor told Civil Beat this week that he still feels that way.
Former state Harbors Director Mike Formby said that reviving the Superferry — or some version of it — doesn’t necessarily require backing from the Abercrombie administration.
“Just because the current administration is not interested in a Superferry doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done,” Formby said in an interview. “What I would say is this: There definitely is a process and a company would have to go through that process.”
That would include an environmental impact statement, and working with the Department of Transportation and other regulators like the Public Utilities Commission, he said, adding, “And can the ports accommodate the service?”
Formby, who worked for the state under former Gov. Linda Lingle, said he can imagine variations on the Superferry that might be more appealing to Abercrombie.
“Maybe you don’t need a vessel that big,” Formby said. “if someone came in and said let’s have 230 passengers and 30 cars instead of 800 passengers and 100 cars, the administration might change their mind.”
The more complicated issue, Formby said, could be convincing a private company that an interisland ferry system is a wise investment.
“The issue is — after the Superferry and what they went through with the bankruptcy of the company — whether or not another company would be willing to bring a privately financed project,” Formby said. “Any financial assistance, whether it’s from the feds or from the state, would be incentive.”
Inouye sees at least some financial involvement from the federal government. He envisions a state-run operation with federal help from the Department of Defense “so the military has a stake in it,” a spokesman for Inouye said in a follow-up conversation after Civil Beat’s interview with the senator.
But Inouye also acknowledges that any hope of federal funding for such a project is more than a year away, at least.
“Not next year, but it’s feasible,” Inouye said. “When I began talking about (getting federal money to improve) Saddle Road, people pooh-poohed it. When we started talking about the rail system, it was the same.”
Inouye, who has spent decades fighting for rail in Honolulu, isn’t one to be deterred when he thinks a project is worth the effort.
“We have islands that are separated,” Inouye said. “Politically, that’s what I want to be able to change, at least with a transportation system. We’re going to get one.”
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