Imagine boarding a foreign-flagged passenger ship for an Oahu-Maui trip and then engaging in a bit of legal gambling during the five-hour journey.

It’s one way, suggested Capt. Ed Enos, a state harbor pilot, Hawaii could bring back an inter-island ferry system.

Several dozen people, including politicians and union members in the maritime industry, met Monday evening at Honolulu Harbor’s Pier 19 — the Hawaii Superferry’s old terminal — to discuss the return of an inter-island ferry system. (And to grab a free beer, glass of wine or food from one of three trucks set up out front for the event.)

Superferry ramp at night

The old ramp at Honolulu Harbor’s Pier 19, where the now-defunct Hawaii Superferry used to dock.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

It was billed as the first conference of its type to get talks going again — pro or con — so Hawaii residents, tourists, businesses and emergency response teams no longer have to rely on slow barges and expensive flights.

It’s been six years since the Superferry went out of business following protests on Kauai and Maui and court rulings that faulted the environmental exemptions Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration approved so the company could cut costs and begin operating sooner. 

The Superferry operated a 350-foot catamaran called the Alakai that was capable of carrying more than 860 passengers and 280 cars between the islands.

The Alakai ran for about 18 months between Oahu and Maui, but made just two trips between Oahu and Kauai — the second and final one ended without even unloading because hundreds of protesters lined the pier and blocked the boat’s access to the dock in Nawiliwili Harbor.

A second ship, the Huakai, was intended to later serve the Big Island. The two boats were sold to the U.S. Navy for $25 million each, just a portion of the initial investment.

Enos said thinking outside of the box is critical if the state is ever going to have an inter-island ferry system again. Investors lost millions of dollars in the failed Superferry effort and are leery of trying a similar approach.

Inter-island Ferry Conference

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, left, and others attend an inter-island ferry conference, Oct. 6, at the Pier 19 terminal at Honolulu Harbor.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

There were many concerns about the Superferry, including the spread of invasive species, the possible influx of drugs and homeless people, risks of harm to whales and marine life and the potential degradation of the Neighbor Islands’ rural lifestyle. Plus, its three-plus-hour ride often nauseated passengers, especially in the winter months when the seas are sometimes rough.

Enos said a longer ship, perhaps 500 or 600 feet, single-hulled instead of double, would provide a smoother albeit slower trip. Allowing gambling, he said, would attract initial investors, appeal to travelers and be an “easy cash source.”

It could even be done as a pilot project of sorts by letting a foreign vessel come in for a few years to prove the concept works, Enos said, noting that was the original plan for the Superferry. 

The conference sought to find a way to bring back a ferry system by learning from past mistakes. The benefits to business and the potential to reduce travel costs for kamaaina and visitors alike make it a “no-brainer,” according to state Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria.

Galuteria promised that the state would not usurp any type of government regulation this time around, like it did for the Superferry.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in August 2007 that the Department of Transporation erred in not requiring the Superferry to first conduct an environmental impact statement before starting service. The study was triggered by the state spending $40 million on harbor improvements, including barges and ramps for the Superferry to unload its passengers and vehicles.

Leighton Tseu at ferry conference

Leighton Tseu, who was the senior port engineer for Matson Navigation, talks during the inter-island ferry conference at the Pier 19 terminal at Honolulu Harbor.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Heeding the high court’s instruction, a lower court ordered the Superferry to suspend service until it finished the environmental review. 

Lingle responded by calling a special session of the Legislature in October 2007 in which state lawmakers passed a law to circumvent the court’s ruling and let the Superferry run while completing the study. 

Environmental groups appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed in March 2009 that the law was unconstitutional. 

The Superferry immediately laid off 200-plus employees and filed for bankruptcy two months later.

“We have lessons learned,” Galuteria said. “Let’s shove off.”

He promised to back any legislation that comes before him next session, which starts in January, that would help an inter-island ferry return to Hawaiian waters.

Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party candidate for governor, has said if he wins election in November one of his top priorities will be to bring back an inter-island ferry system. He made a similar pledge during his failed bid for governor in 2010.

Hannemann’s most recent financial disclosure report shows he owns stock in two companies that are working on the design and development of advanced ship hull forms and researching lifting hull technologies.

He was not present at the conference at 5 p.m., two hours after it started, nor were the other top gubernatorial candidates, Republican Duke Aiona and Democrat David Ige — both of whom are quite familiar with the Superferry fiasco.

Aiona was Lingle’s lieutenant governor at the time. And Ige, a state senator, voted in favor of the Superferry bill in the special session.

Union supporters in the audience booed Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Jeff Davis’ proposal to push for an exemption for Hawaii from the Jones Act, which could help facilitate Enos’ idea of using a foreign-flagged ship.

Leighton Tseu, who was the senior port engineer for Matson Navigation, spoke at length about the merits of an inter-island ferry system.

Ultimately, he said, technology today and “the way we think” now make the time ripe for revisiting the issue.

“Kauai is our biggest problem,” he said, adding that it’s important for everyone to be “lokahi,” or one, to make it happen.

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