When it comes to public property in the islands, there are plenty of unmet maintenance needs. Our public schools and the University of Hawaii come to mind.

Now the state is taking an important step to actually address another major backlog in public facility maintenance, this one at its 16 small boat harbors.

First it will have to resist the plaintive protests of boat owners who are about to see a big increase in the cost of mooring their boats in those harbors — and in some cases living there.

It’s unfortunate that some of these boaters may not be able to afford to stay in their harbor slips once fees increase dramatically Nov. 1, and we don’t really blame them for squawking.

But the truth of the matter is that the action is long overdue. The Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has been allowing harbor tenants to pay far less than they should.

Ala Wai Harbor damaged slip.
A damaged slip at the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor is one example of $40.3 million in deferred maintenance and capital improvements that are needed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s understandable that they got used to paying low fees and would prefer that fee increases be phased in more slowly. It’s just not fair to the rest of us taxpayers, and now is the time to do what it takes to ensure our decrepit harbors are upgraded.

The DLNR has been unable to keep up with harbor maintenance projects. About $310 million worth of capital improvement and maintenance costs have been identified around the islands, many of which have not been funded.

Some $40.3 million of that work is needed at just the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor, a decaying 11-acre parcel of docks, slips, vacant land and pockmarked parking lots in the heart of Honolulu. The work includes dredging, roadwork, water and sewer line replacements, boat launch ramp repairs, electrical work and replacement of some piers and docks.

It’s pretty much the same story at many of Hawaii’s other public harbors, places that should be points of pride in an island state, not visual embarrassments.

Boaters shouldn’t be expected to bear the entire cost of the needed repairs, but past fee increases have been woefully inadequate. At the Ala Wai, mooring fees for boats went up from $5.25 a foot in 2006 to $5.67 a foot in 2011. The new fee will be $13 a foot at the Ala Wai and at least $9 a foot at the other harbors.

And while those per-foot fees used to apply strictly to boat lengths, they’ll now be based on the lengths of the slips even if they’re longer than the vessels. Some boaters complain that they’ll be paying for space they won’t be using, but that’s like building tenants saying they should only be charged for the space they use rather than for the total space they’re occupying.

The state’s new per-foot fee policy is already used at most private boat harbors in the state, according to a 2017 appraisal report.

On top of the higher mooring rates, boaters who live on their vessels will need to start paying $10 per person each night, a big increase from $2.

That’ll be another blow to the communities that have sprung up in harbors such as the Ala Wai, but then again, they were never intended to house people permanently. Instead, they are supposed to be locations where boaters could live aboard vessels when they weren’t at sea.

“They’re not supposed to be floating condos, which is what it has turned into,” Ed Underwood, administrator of the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, told Civil Beat earlier this year. “People don’t use the boats. They use it for housing and that was never the intent at the Ala Wai.”

Indeed, some boats in the harbor look like floating flophouses that aren’t headed out to sea anytime soon.

And not everyone living aboard boats in the harbor is paying to do so. DOBOR said in 2017 it was aware of at least 45 boats with illegal liveaboards at the Ala Wai.

Some longtime harbor tenants fear their way of life may be coming to a sudden end, and the abruptness is partially due to the state being so slow to start charging realistic fees.

But the answer isn’t to continue what is in essence an affordable housing program for boaters. The fee increase is a step in the right direction as Hawaii struggles to preserve facilities that belong to all of its residents, not just a lucky few.

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