- Special Projects
Results are in from a new state study: The ferry isn’t going to happen.
There’s more hype than actual interest. There’s no pier space. And it’s just too expensive.
The situation probably won’t change until “substantially” cheaper or “drastically” faster ferry technologies are created, according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation, even though “no other state depends on ocean or water transport to the degree Hawaii does.”
Interisland, intra-island and intra-county routes were all written off as infeasible.
High costs and a lack of pier space are the top reasons a ferry wouldn’t work, according to the report.
Generally, support is high, but few people would actually use it. A state subsidy would be needed to sustain the system.
A July state audit found Hawaii still owed $33 million on the Superferry, which ran from 2007 to 2009 until it was shut down for failing to complete an environmental review prior to commencing operation.
Taxpayers will continue to pay off the Superferry charges until 2028.
The state also paid $38 million for Superferry barges and vehicle ramp systems. They were later sold to Vogel Equipment at just one percent of the original value, or $380,000, according to a state audit.
But if history is any indication, this isn’t the last Hawaii will hear of a ferry.
More than 70 studies, reports and publications on a Hawaii ferry service have been published since 1956 — before Hawaii became a state. Half of those are feasibility studies, much like the report made public Monday.
Many of those studies also came to the conclusion that the ferry wouldn’t work, according to the report, which was paid for with a $50,000 appropriation from the Legislature.
The latest DOT study looked at four types of vessels and multiple routes, such as one that once ran from West Oahu to downtown. Based on public feedback, the state determined the impact of a ferry on that commuter route “would possibly go unnoticed.” The estimated cost of a round-trip daily ticket for West Oahu commuters would be $20.
Of the 12 harbors analyzed, some would need infrastructural improvements such as an expanded parking lot, or ramps to load cars and cargo onto ferries.
Infrastructural improvements could cost more than $100 million.
Maui’s Kahului Harbor, deemed “the most popular interisland ferry destination from Honolulu” in the report, already has such high traffic that it couldn’t handle a ferry service.
Environmental factors were also a consideration in the study.
Invasive species such as fire ants, coqui frogs and the gorse plant found on Hawaii Island could be accidentally transported to other islands through soil, litter or personal items stowed on board, according to the report.
The Superferry developed a list of protocols to combat the transport of invasive species, but there would still be a risk.
Further complicating the situation, the federal government would need to sign off on the project. Necessary infrastructural changes “in or over water” would trigger a federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, the report said.
Adding to the cost are two federal laws written at least 100 years ago that effectively require ferries in Hawaii to be built in the United States, where labor costs are higher. The Jones Act, or Merchant Marine Act of 1920, and Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 are cited in the report.
Vessels would cost from $10 million to $104 million, according to the study.
High construction costs aside, actual public interest appears to be too low to financially sustain the ferry system, according to interviews conducted with the help of SMS Hawaii.
Public interviews of almost 1,500 randomly selected Hawaii residents suggest people support an interisland ferry, the report said, because it would provide an alternative mode of travel. People also tended to believe costs would be lower than other travel options and a ferry would be the more environmentally conscious choice.
More than half of the residents said they “strongly support” an interisland ferry, while 20 percent “somewhat support” the idea. Kauai had the least support of all islands, though more than half of respondents there “somewhat” or “strongly support” the ferry.
Overall, more people said they were likely to use a ferry that transported vehicles than a passenger-only ferry.
On average, the public felt a reasonable round-trip ticket cost was around $90, while $135 was pricey and and $190 was too expensive. Interviews indicated people would be comfortable spending an additional $90 to bring their car.
The state determined an “optimal” ticket price would be $140, based on that feedback. Just more than 60 percent of interested respondents said they would be willing to pay that much.
“The probability of commercial success for a prospective ferry system in Hawaii is heavily dependent on a small portion of residents who are interested interisland and intra-island travel by ocean,” according to the report. “… Through a different lens, the concept of interisland travel by ferry appears to meet needs unmet by air travel, but the numbers do not support this.”
Few respondents said they would take a ferry route that lasted six hours or overnight. Given Hawaii’s ocean conditions and the current speed capacity of vessels, surveys indicate many respondents had unrealistic expectations of travel time.
Almost half of public participants wanted ferries to make trips two or three times per day, while 30 percent wanted to see a daily ferry schedule.
Almost 80 percent of participants said a ferry should be supported with state dollars. Most respondents supported the idea of a public-private partnership, like the now-defunct Superferry, to operate the ferry, while “very few” said it should be state-run.
Interviews with public sector groups that might have a role in a ferry system showed they wanted higher government subsidy levels than business sector groups.
The exception to these findings was the intra-county route from Maui to Molokai. Feedback from the public and other parties “accentuate a very real need for this service to be restored,” according to the report, even though the route wouldn’t be financially sustainable on its own.
“Personally I know the value and would like to see the ferry,” wrote Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents and grew up on Molokai, in an email. “But looking at the study it is highly unlikely that it would sustain itself.”
Read the full report here: