In an archipelago state, an interisland ferry system could help to better integrate the most populated Hawaiian Islands, with an eye toward stimulating and diversifying the economy, improving food security, creating jobs and bringing down costs.

That is part of why, in an interview with Civil Beat in 2012 less than a year before he died, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye said his “dream” was for Hawaii to have “a reasonable ferry system that one can afford to pay (for).”

The late senator was hardly alone. People of diverse political leanings have supported the creation of an interisland ferry system for decades. Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, pushed hard — perhaps too hard — when in 2007 she gave the Superferry an exemption and later called a special session to help keep it running between Oahu and Maui. Her lieutenant governor was Duke Aiona, now the Republican candidate for governor. State Sen. David Ige, Aiona’s Democratic opponent in this year’s gubernatorial race, voted to help keep the Superferry afloat in the special session vote in 2007.

Hawaii Superferry

The company behind the controversial Superferry went under in 2009.

Flickr: billsophoto

And no one has had a higher profile on the issue in recent months than former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party’s candidate for governor, who has made the restoration of an interisland ferry into a signature issue of his campaign.

Some people may not have liked the Superferry — or, more precisely, the regulatory work-around and special session used to try to keep it alive — but the vast majority of people do want an affordable, effective ferry system. A recent Hawaii News Now/Star-Advertiser poll found 87 percent support and just 11 percent opposition. (Two percent weren’t sure.)

A functioning ferry system has the potential to boost Hawaii’s economy as products and people move more fluidly — and less expensively — between islands. This could, if done right, chip away at elements of Hawaii’s high cost of living. The ability to quickly move vehicles and work materials between islands could broaden the expertise available around the state.

A ferry system could also improve food security. In 2010, a volcano named Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, spurring the grounding of trans-Atlantic flights out of North America and across much of Europe, due to the possibility that the ash would damage aircraft engines. The disruptions lasted for weeks. An interisland ferry system in Hawaii might avert such a problem.

On a more intimate note, it could even strengthen ohana bonds if it allowed family members on different islands to visit each other more frequently.

More broadly, a ferry system could provide a little healthy competition for the handful of airlines that carry us between islands.

Still, there are many obstacles. Ports would likely need improvements. The state might be understandably gun-shy about taking on such a venture after the Superferry debacle, which cost it tens of millions of dollars. Given the Superferry’s bankruptcy, it is unclear whether private companies would risk investing in a similar ferry system. A public-private partnership might be necessary or, as Inouye suggested, a deal with the U.S. military might be needed to make it happen.

Unlike the process associated with the Superferry, the next interisland system would need to respect relevant environmental requirements and the governor should make sure a ferry project is done in collaboration with people on the islands that would be affected.

And the many arguments against the Superferry — some more credible than others — are worth looking at. They included fears invasive species would island-hop; the population of Oahu could overwhelm the neighbor isles; interisland drug trafficking might get easier because drivers could stash drugs in their car or truck; Honolulu might engage in homelessness dumping; and fast-moving ferries might strike whales. Some also lament the potential degradation of islanders’ rural lifestyles.

In reality, the impact of an interisland ferry system would be a matter of degrees because nearly all of those things already happen. It would really be a question of managing the flow of people and goods.

Such concerns aside, many questions remain. Should ships — and trips — be longer than the Superferry? How many hulls should the vessels have? Could the ships be foreign made? What companies will invest and what involvement should the state have? What technological improvements would make for the smartest and most suitable possible ferry system for Hawaii?

We, at Civil Beat, don’t know all the answers. But we know that Hawaii won’t find an answer until we explore moving ahead.

In the coming legislative session, Hawaii should seriously consider proposals to put into place an affordable, reliable, economically viable and environmentally sound interisland ferry.

The argument shouldn’t be about whether or not Hawaii should — like islands around the world — have a system, it should be about how to do it best. The people of Hawaii should be able to travel between the islands without boarding airplanes. So let’s be open to proposals and see what makes sense.

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