As state leaders look for ways to improve the economy and provide infrastructure for future growth, I feel that it is necessary to once more remind policymakers of the obvious: Hawaii needs an inter-island ferry system.

It’s been more than a decade since the Hawaii Superferry failed spectacularly amidst environmental legal issues and many protests. Whenever the topic of trying again at some kind of ferry system is brought up, many people simply dismiss the idea as having been tried and never to be done again.

But Hawaii, as an archipelago state, cannot avoid the fact that transportation between islands needs to include more than just aircraft for residents.

The Hawaii Superferry, shown under construction in Alabama in 2006, didn’t succeed because of environmental and legal fights. But the need for an inter-island ferry has never gone away.

Flickr: James Willamor

Our Fate Is Tied To The Sea

The late President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”

There are many reasons why a ferry system permitting drive-on/drive-off capability for passenger vehicles is a critical necessity for all islands in Hawaii. The first and most obvious is that this type of system makes it easier to work, live, and play on multiple islands, bringing everyone and everything closer together.

In the case of small businesses, bringing a van or a truck full of equipment or supplies from Oahu to the neighbor islands or vice-versa by ferry would allow companies to cheaply and conveniently conduct business on multiple islands.

State agencies, which often have satellite offices on outer islands, would be able to take government vehicles loaded with multiple employees or materials, without having to board an aircraft.

In the case of government workers, all it would take would be for the state to enter into some kind of cooperative agreement with a ferry provider, and civil service employees could regularly conduct business on all islands.

Rather than having to plan intricate itineraries, locals and out-of-state visitors on all islands could also engage in “impulse tourism,” where one could take the ferry, have lunch, go sightseeing or shopping on another island, and return by the time the day is done. This type of convenience would spread customers and revenue across the entire state, rather than clustering in certain islands or niche areas.

Most importantly of all, persons on neighboring islands with limited access to specialty medical care can use an inter-island ferry to come to Oahu, drive around in the comfort of their own vehicle, stay at a relative or friend’s place if necessary, and return home. This could significantly improve quality of life and healthcare availability, as well as potentially save lives on outer islands. For some, living with chronic diseases or special health needs outside of Oahu can be both costly and life-threatening in times of emergencies.

State Rep. John Mizuno, chair of the House Health Committee, said by phone that he would be supportive of a ferry if it meant improving the overall health access and wellness of Hawaii residents.

“An inter-island ferry service which transports vehicles and people could provide an affordable means of travel for our neighbor island residents needing specialized medical procedures and services,” Mizuno said. “I think this could be beneficial to our entire state.”

Mizuno, who recently participated in a policy tour of the Philippines, said that he was very impressed by the various means of inter-island transport available there, which included a robust ferry system.

Getting to Yes

We already know from the example of the prior Superferry and more recent examples such as the Thirty Meter Telescope or infrastructure projects on Oahu that doing things in Hawaii often arouses intense public emotions, protests, and even “lawfare”-type opposition.

You don’t have to regularly read the contentious comments on stories in the local media like Civil Beat and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to know that any proposed activity that results in any kind of progress in Hawaii is going to be perceived by half of the population as being bad for the environment, culturally insensitive, unsustainable or derided as being too expensive.

This is the new normal in a place like Hawaii where people compete for limited resources and scarce opportunities, and policymakers need to recognize their job is to find out what will make Hawaii a better place and get all of us, collectively, in spite of objections, to say yes.

One of the ways that policymakers can prevent being caught in protracted wrangling over a ferry is to start now by reaching out to community and business leaders on all islands and start cultivating relationships that build support for this type of infrastructure.

Fear of being left behind often manifests as cultural, economic, or policy opposition, but when the state gets leaders to buy in before a project starts, there are going to be fewer people who will feel that something is being forced on their livelihood.

Hawaii needs to link our islands and our people closer together with easier, more affordable options, and that must include an inter-island ferry service to all islands. We can do this. The time to start is now.

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