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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, March 3, 2005

No environmental review required for Superferry

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Hawai'i Superferry will not have to do an environmental impact statement before it begins interisland operations, dodging a hurdle ferry executives said could have scuttled the project.

A Senate committee yesterday killed a bill that would have required the lengthy and expensive environmental review, apparently agreeing with the state Transportation Department, which said an EIS is not required by law.

"It's a great day," Superferry CEO John Garibaldi said moments after the bill was held by the Senate Transportation and Government Operations Committee.

Garibaldi told lawmakers that requiring an EIS would have effectively killed years of research and planning designed to start regular, high-speed ferry service between Honolulu and Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island in early 2007.

He promised that ferry officials would continue to address environmental concerns raised by opponents and would soon begin an extensive public outreach program in all counties to inform the public about its plans to mitigate potential problems, including harbor and traffic congestion, caused by ferry operations.

"We're hoping people will work with us to see there are things we can do to achieve a balance that suits everyone," he said.

However, those believing that an EIS should be completed before the Superferry is allowed to move forward vowed to continue their fight.

The ferry proposal has generated popular excitement on all islands, especially among those who say it will provide a cheaper alternative to interisland air travel and a new way to ship produce and other goods between islands. One-way passenger fares between islands would begin at $42, Superferry officials said.

Yesterday's hearing before the Transportation and Government Operations Committee drew written and oral testimony from more than 100 people. The vote was 5-0, with two members excused.

The bill's supporters, including environmental groups, shippers, canoe clubs and other harbor users, argued that the scope and operation of the ferry project in four harbors will have a significant impact on the economic, social, cultural and economic welfare of the Islands.

"The new ferry coming into our community is going to bring a lot of traffic and other problems," said JoJo Tanimoto, a resident of Kawaihae on the Big Island, one of the ferry's proposed ports of call.

"I want to ride the ferry and I want my children to get jobs with the Superferry, but first let's make them consider all the possible impacts," said Linda Dela Cruz, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee from the Big Island.

Dozens of others, however, pleaded with lawmakers to let the ferry plans proceed without an EIS. Garibaldi said the company would lose $200 million in financing if the planning process was delayed beyond June 30.

"I have family on the Neighbor Islands. Do I need to say any more? Please don't throw up roadblocks that are unneeded and of questionable value," said Richard Rice of Kailua, echoing the remarks of many who submitted written testimony.

State Transportation Department and other state officials said the ferry would use existing harbor facilities, and that the bill unfairly singled out the ferry operations when other port users, including cruise ships and cargo lines, did not have to conduct an environmental assessment before beginning operations.

Planned harbor improvements for the ferry do not require dredging, permanent facilities or any waterside construction, said Rod Haraga, director of the state Transportation Department, which is asking the Legislature to approve $40 million in harbor improvements this year to accommodate the ferry.

Most of the money will be used to acquire barges and ramps that will be used to move cars and other vehicles between the ferry and the docks, he said.

The department also plans to closely review the operational plans of the ferry to minimize problems around the ports, but it has no jurisdiction over the ferries when they are in open water where they could encounter whales, he said.

Haraga also announced that the state now plans to use reimbursable general obligation bonds to finance the harbor improvements.

That means money received from tariffs and fees charged to the ferry would be directly used to pay the debt service on bonds.

Garibaldi said that by 2010, when two ferries are expected to be in operation, the company expects to pay the state about $6 million a year in such fees, almost double what will be required to pay off the bonds.

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