The basic common sense behind offering regular boat service between the islands goes back to the earliest human habitation of Hawaii.

We’ve become increasingly reliant on air transportation since the 1950s, despite the obvious challenges that creates. What about travelers who can’t or won’t take a plane? Or can’t afford air travel? What if some disaster or international crisis makes air travel impossible for a period of time?

What if you just think that taking a boat trip from Oahu to Maui sounds like a great way to spend a few hours?

Not so long ago, that was entirely, albeit briefly, possible. Launched in 2007, the Hawaii Superferry could transport nearly 900 people and just under 300 subcompact cars between Honolulu and Kahului.

The Superferry Alakai, shown at Pier 19, sailed between Maui and Oahu between 2007 and 2009.
The Superferry Alakai, shown at Pier 19, sailed between Maui and Oahu from 2007 to 2009. Flickr: Bill Sodeman

But court challenges over environmental impact studies and protests by environmental activists ultimately doomed the Superferry, which suspended service for good in March 2009. Subsequent attempts to resurrect the service as a state-run ferry or with the backing of private investors failed, leaving “Superferry” as shorthand for a good idea gone horribly wrong through poor planning and political insensitivity.

Now comes the latest effort to explore bringing back ferry service, a deliberate first step in a process that must not get ahead of itself. Senate Bill 2618 is being advanced by lawmakers who are personally familiar with the ferry’s history and who are looking to avoid its mistakes.

The bill would require the state Department of Transportation to undertake a feasibility study of a ferry system — nothing more, nothing less. DOT would be charged with looking at public ferry services in other states, identifying appropriate routes and harbors for Hawaii ferries, examine potential costs, revenues and financing for such a service and, perhaps most politically importantly, emphasizing “compliance of an interisland ferry system with the state’s environmental protection laws…”

Attempts to resurrect the service as a state-run ferry or with the backing of private investors failed, leaving “Superferry” as shorthand for a good idea gone horribly wrong through poor planning and political insensitivity.

It was the lack of attention to the latter — or rather, the attempt to ignore the latter — that ultimately was the Superferry’s kryptonite. Then-Gov. Linda Lingle exempted the Superferry from conducting a state-mandated environmental assessment, which ignited a controversy around the service from which it never recovered.

When its lack of an EIS ultimately was met with an injunction blocking the ferry’s service, state lawmakers hurried through a bill allowing the Superferry to operate while an environmental study was undertaken.

Meanwhile, critics vocally drew attention to every possible way the ferry might negatively affect marine life, help spread invasive species and otherwise degrade the Hawaii environment. Other arguments were drawn into the mix as well — some legitimate, some questionable: The Superferry might enable illicit drugs to be moved more easily around the state, for instance, or turn Oahu’s homeless residents into exports for neighbor islands.

The ferry system couldn’t stay afloat under the weight of multiple controversies. When the Supreme Court finally found the law unconstitutional that allowed the system to operate with the EIS still underway, the Superferry ceased operations and shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy, docking its boats for good.

Laying The Superferry’s Controversies To Rest

It’s difficult to predict whether launching a publicly owned ferry service today might be a viable idea. That’s the point, of course, of doing a feasibility study and addressing each of the issues outlined in SB2618 without any external pressure, save that of completing the study in time to present it to the Legislature in advance of the 2017 session.

But if there’s any doubt that the mere mention of the word “Superferry” conjures the controversies of 2007-09, one only need to refer to a Star-Advertiser story earlier this month that described Gov. David Ige as “moving ahead with a proposal to revive interisland ferry service.” The story incorrectly conflated Ige’s support for the feasibility study with support for resumption of service, and some of the same critics of the Superferry eight years ago surfaced right away.

The reaction was so swift that the governor’s communications director felt compelled to circulate a staff memo calling out the claim as false to tamp down concerns of those reacting to the story.

The provisions of SB2618 are not only sound, they represent the most logical way to lay those controversies to rest. The bill already has passed the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee and is scheduled to be heard and voted on Thursday afternoon by the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Chances look good for it to clear the Senate and move to the House on March 10 with other crossover bills.

Ige has already indicated his support for the measure; his director of the state Department of Transportation, Ford Fuchigami, has spoken with legislators about the importance of a solid process in considering ferry service anew. It appears increasingly likely that by this time next year, we’ll be examining the finances and environmental impacts of doing exactly that.

If ferry service is to be re-established, this is the route that stands the best chance of getting us there.

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