The privately owned ferry service is a critical mode of transportation for the island’s 3,000 residents.

A ferry service that’s a vital link for Lanai residents traveling to and from Maui for work and medical appointments may sell its assets, creating uncertainty about the future of travel on the tiny island.

Maui County

Now Maui County is exploring the prospect of buying it.

On Tuesday the Maui County Council approved a first reading of the county budget for fiscal year 2024, which includes $300,000 for a feasibility study on the operation of a county-owned ferry.

Councilman Gabe Johnson, who lives on Lanai, proposed the funds, saying a study could lay the groundwork to justify a public purchase of the ferry.

“I want public transportation to be in the hands of the public,” said Johnson, who serves as chairman of the Agriculture, Diversification, Environment and Public Transportation Committee. “Interisland transportation is such a hot topic for my community and the ferry is our lifeline.”

The Lanai passenger ferry (Alana Eagle/Civil Beat)
The county may buy the Maui-Lanai passenger ferry. (Alana Eagle/Civil Beat/2016)

Expeditions, the Maui-Lanai passenger ferry, has five boats that make eight trips a day between Lahaina Small Boat Harbor on Maui and Manele Small Boat Harbor on Lanai. 

The importance of the private ferry service has been underscored in recent years by the reduced number of commercial airlines that continue to serve Lanai.

Mokulele Airlines is the only public airline still servicing the Pineapple Isle, putting a squeeze on last-minute travel. In recent months residents have complained that the airline’s nine-passenger planes aren’t sufficient to meet resident demand for interisland travel.

Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson

The ferry is the only other alternative for off-island travel. While its route is limited to the roughly one-hour crossing of the Auau Channel, it’s more affordable than an airline ticket.

A one-way ferry ticket for a kamaaina adult costs $25. Kamaaina tickets for seniors and children are $10. This compares to a one-way airplane ticket from Lanai to Maui, which starts at $74 on Mokulele Airlines.

Johnson said there are a number of federal grants that could help the county buy the ferry service. He envisions the acquisition as a launchpad to a multimodal transportation program where residents could purchase a ride on the ferry and a trip on the county bus with a single ticket.

“The ferry makes money,” Johnson said. “We all know the bus system is not making any money. So the ferry can help subsidize the bus system.”

The upcoming fiscal year starts July 1. The nine-member council by charter has until June 10 to send its budget counterproposal to Mayor Richard Bissen. The next council meeting on the budget is scheduled for June 6.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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