Superferry plan in trouble
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By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer
WAILUKU, Maui Some of the same environmental interests that helped derail expansion of Kahului Airport have set their sights on the Hawai'i Superferry, demanding that it undergo a full and lengthy environmental review process.
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Should the Superferry undergo a long environmental review to examine potential problems, even if it means slowing the approval process? If yes, what should be done? If no, what do you think the fuss is about?
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The push for an environmental review also appears to have the backing of some state lawmakers, with a Senate bill requiring an environmental impact statement proceeding through the Legislature following approval by the Committee on Energy, Environment and International Affairs.
Hawai'i Superferry CEO John Garibaldi said requiring an EIS would kill the project. He said June 30 is the "drop-dead date" by which all government approvals should be in place, allowing a $162 million order for two vessels to go through and assuring investors the project has the green light.
An EIS would take nine months to a year and a half to complete, he said. Any delays beyond June 30 would result in the loss of the initial ferry now under construction in Alabama, as well as $200 million in capital, including a $140 million federal loan.
He said the company already has taken steps to address numerous environmental concerns, and there's plenty of time to iron out any remaining issues before the Superferry launches in early 2007.
What's more, the state Department of Transportation plans to make the company sign an unprecedented agreement spelling out ground rules for operating within the state, officials said.
The demise of the Hawai'i Superferry before it even is launched would be a disappointment to many consumers, who are looking forward to a cheaper alternative to interisland air travel and one that would allow them to take their cars along, too.
The cheapest one-way fares on the Superferry between Honolulu and Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island would range from $42 to $62, with the one-way fees for cars ranging from $55 to $75, and more for pickup trucks and vans.
DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said the agency is still trying to determine what kind of environmental review, if any, is necessary.
One option being considered to accommodate the Superferry, he said, is installing a barge, or floating dock, at each harbor to use as a ramp for loading and unloading vehicles. If that happens, it would be considered "adding equipment," which would qualify for an exemption from the state's environmental review law, he said.
Ishikawa said the department has sent out letters asking the counties for input on the environmental review question and is waiting for replies before making a decision.
In any case, Gov. Linda Lingle has said her administration is committed to the project and is urging the Legislature to approve $40 million in harbor improvements to accommodate the Superferry.
But a dozen environmental activists warned the Governor's Maui Advisory Committee last week that the environmental impacts of the Superferry would be substantial, ranging from the proliferation of island-hopping alien species and threats to humpback whales, to the influx of visitors seeking new and easy access to fishing areas.
"They owe it to the communities of Hawai'i to do an environmental analysis just like everyone else," said Maui attorney Isaac Hall, who represents the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition, an ad-hoc group concerned about the expansion of the harbor and the Superferry project.
He said he is astounded the state could spend $40 million on what has been described as harbor upgrades while exempting the project from environmental review.
Hall is the same attorney who filed suit to stop the state from expanding Kahului Airport and extending the runway to accommodate international flights in 1992. The proposal stalled after a judge ordered an EIS, and the state eventually walked away from the project.
Garibaldi said company attorneys looked at the issue with transportation officials and determined that because the Superferry would use existing dock space, it is exempt from the EIS law. A new airline or even one doubling its business at a state airport isn't required to conduct an EIS, and neither is a new cruise line or cargo operation using state harbors, he said.
With shipping concerns being squeezed for dock and storage space at Kahului Harbor, the state's third-busiest port presents perhaps the greatest challenge for accommodating the Superferry. Canoe club members last year rallied to beat back a proposed pier that would have interfered with their use of the harbor.
There are space concerns at other harbors as well, prompting Matson Navigation Co., Horizon Lines and Young Brothers Ltd. to join the chorus of those urging the state to require an environmental impact statement.
There also are worries the Superferry would unload hundreds of vehicles into Kahului, choking traffic on busy streets. And there are questions about whether there is enough space for the Superferry's vehicle staging area and whether canoe club activities would be affected.
Garibaldi said that although the ferry can carry up to 282 cars, the average load will be less. He also said there should be no net traffic gain, because for every car added to local roads by the ferry, another would be leaving.
He also said the company is working with the Department of Agriculture to devise ways to control the transportation of plants and animals, including requiring that vehicles be free of dirt and mud. Ferry officials also are developing a strategy to avoid collisions with humpback whales that includes changing routes during the whale season and posting additional lookouts on deck and on shore.
The Superferry initially is planning only one trip a day to Maui from Honolulu, and service every other day to Kaua'i and the Big Island. When a second vessel is added in 2008, two trips a day to Maui are planned, with daily service to Kaua'i and the Big Island.
Barry Fukunaga, deputy director for the Harbors Division, said logistical details are still being ironed out while aiming to minimize any impacts.
Meanwhile, Maui County Councilwoman Michelle Anderson said she plans to introduce a resolution next month urging the state to require an EIS.
"Nobody in Maui County voted for an H-4," she said, referring to the Hawai'i Superferry's nickname as the state's "interisland highway."
Lucienne De Naie, executive chair of the Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter, said that if the Superferry is such a good thing, then the financing will be there after an EIS is completed.
But Garibaldi said the $140 million federal loan guarantee, in particular, will not. Other projects will move ahead in priority, he said, and the Superferry will have to work its way up from the bottom.
"It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put this together again," he said.
Hall, the attorney, said he has already been authorized by Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition to file suit if an EIS is not done.
David Pratt, president and CEO of Kaua'i-based Grove Farm, said it would be a shame if the Superferry and its promise of lower-cost transportation were lost to Hawai'i.
"We think it's a good idea," said Pratt, whose company invested $500,000 in the Superferry. "It's another means of shipping goods between the islands. We think it will promote small farming on ag lands, and we need that."
Reach Timothy Hurley at email@example.com or (808) 244-4880.