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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Honolulu Harbor facilities must expand, officials say

 •  Graphic (opens in new window): More cargo coming into Honolulu Harbor, but where will it go?

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Honolulu Harbor, the lifeline that funnels 98 percent of all consumer goods goods into Hawai'i, needs improvements and expansion costing hundreds of millions of dollars to accommodate future growth, according to state and business officials.

Horizon Lines containers, in the foreground, and Matson containers pile up at Honolulu Harbor. Increases in imported cargo have strained harbor terminals.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Imported cargo — everything from toilet paper to telephone poles — is expected to almost double in the next 20 years, pushing the 210-year-old harbor to a breaking point.

"We're chock-a-block full," said Glenn Soma, a planner with the Department of Transportation's Harbors Division. "Everybody is squeezed tight and cargo carriers already are looking for new places for their overflow."

Without development of new harbor space or other alternatives, the state's economic development is likely to suffer, business officials say.

"We're OK for the moment, but as the state grows, this is something that definitely needs addressing," said Brian Taylor, vice president and general manager of Horizon Lines (formerly CSX), the second-largest container cargo carrier in the state.

"We've got 10 to 20 years, max, to come up with something new," said Glenn Hong, president of Young Brothers, which ships goods to and from Neighbor Islands through Honolulu Harbor.

A 1995 survey ranked Honolulu as the 10th-busiest of all 75 North American container ports in terms of cargo tonnage, but a follow-up survey found that its cargo acreage ranks in the lowest 30 percent.

The most likely expansion area is the former Kapalama Military Reservation, a 55-acre home to hundreds of rambling warehouses and small businesses, most of which exist on month-to-month leases. The state acquired the land just off Sand Island Access Road in 1994, but development will cost more than $100 million, officials said.

Even at that price, officials expect expansion to begin there by the end of this decade.

"When you consider how important the harbor is, there's no way the state is not going to pay attention," said Barry Kim, head of the Harbors Division's O'ahu branch.

Expansion of Honolulu Harbor is complicated by the number of groups that already have a claim on the area. Cruise ships, commercial fishermen, research vessels, excursion boats, interisland barges, tugs, ferries, auto carriers, the Coast Guard and others all have substantial operations in the harbor and none of them is eager to move, officials said.

Container trucks line up at the Horizon Lines Honolulu terminal. Another crane will be added to speed up loading and unloading of ships.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The opening of a second deep-draft harbor at Barbers Point in 1990 eased some of the pressure on Honolulu by diverting bulk-load carriers such as those bringing grain, oil and coal to the state. Even so, planners and others say Honolulu Harbor requires major upgrades.

Transportation Department officials last month told lawmakers they plan to rebuild the pavement in the major overseas container facilities on Sand Island. The work, which could begin in 2005, could cost more than $40 million, officials said.

Officials also expect to begin work later this year on a new 2030 master plan for Honolulu, bringing dozens of harbor users together to discuss coming changes.

The new master plan will almost certainly involve dislocating some users of the harbor, where development of the last waterfront parcel is expected to begin later this year, completing a build up that began shortly after the first Western ships arrived in 1794.

"Everything is tied to something else," Soma said. "You can't move one thing without affecting another."

With cruise ships and cargo carriers having the biggest needs, others are likely to suffer, officials say. An informal survey of planners suggested that the harbor could use more than 120 new berths, including room for more than 100 foreign fishing vessels that would like to homeport in Hawai'i.

While planners look at long-term needs, maritime businesses try to cope with today's space crunch, which has been exacerbated by a change in the way many Hawai'i businesses order supplies.

Under the new "just in time" system, many businesses bring in just enough supplies for a particular project or sale, foregoing the need for expensive storage space, in effect transforming the harbor cargo yards into state-owned warehouses.

To help deal with the problem, Young Brothers recently acquired four acres of waterfront land to expand its container operations. And later this year, Horizon Lines is bringing in another $3.5 million gantry crane to speed up the loading and unloading of its ships.

"The addition of a new crane doesn't require more space," Taylor said. "It helps you work faster, getting the cargo off the ship faster, shortening its stay in port, and getting the ship back out into operation quicker. That's one of the primary drivers in the industry."

Matson Lines, the state's leading cargo shipper, paid for a $31 million overhaul of its cargo yard, giving the company the ability to stack containers and providing a higher density of operations.

"If the growth continues about the same, that should give our system enough capacity to get us to 2015," said Gary North, Matson's vice president of operations. "Ultimately the long-term solution is to develop another container facility at Kapalama."

The biggest proposal of all, though, calls for replacing the Sand Island bridge with a tunnel. Officials say an accident or terrorist attack on the bridge, the only link between the main cargo facilities and the rest of O'ahu, could paralyze the state for weeks.

Replacing the bridge with a tunnel and dredging an adjacent channel into Keehi Lagoon also would create a second shipping lane for the harbor, ending the problem of ever-larger ships trying to turn around in the crowded facility. Tunnel costs are estimated to be more than $200 million.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5460.