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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 6, 2006

Superferry company called unresponsive, may lose $10M from state

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

State senators have threatened to remove $10 million in state money for harbor improvements for the Hawai'i Superferry unless the company is more open with the public about its plans.

The state Legislature approved $40 million in harbor improvements last session that would be spent over two years. But the Senate Ways and Means Committee has cut $10 million of the money to show its displeasure with the company. The money could still be placed back in the state budget when Senate and House lawmakers meet in conference committee.

State Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-4th (Kahului), and state Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), said the company has been unresponsive to public concerns about the project since it narrowly obtained the state money last session.

"Nothing has happened in a year," Tsutsui said.

"This is one way to get them to talk with us," English said.

John Garibaldi, chief executive officer of Hawai'i Superferry, is scheduled to speak at an informational briefing on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Garibaldi said the company has been talking with individual lawmakers and with community groups across the Islands and was surprised and disappointed by the criticism.

"We just see this as some misinformation that's coming out there that is unfortunate, that people don't have the full story on what communications we are doing," he said.

The superferry plans to start daily passenger and vehicle service between O'ahu, Maui and Kaua'i next year and expand with another ferry to the Big Island by 2009. The company had said the state money for harbor improvements was necessary to get financing, which was completed last year.

Environmentalists have sued to try to force the company to do an environmental impact statement and are raising other concerns. Some were upset when company and state Department of Transportation officials declined to appear at a recent superferry forum on Maui.

Garibaldi said the company had heard about the discussion late and was reluctant to appear because some of the people involved have been aggressive opponents. "We're not going to enter forums where people aren't there to create a constructive end result," he said.

Tsutsui said he wants the company to answer questions about harbor security, whale protection, the spread of invasive species and the impact on other harbor businesses. The senator said state transportation officials also have been slow to answer questions about the project.

English said he also would like to hear how the company plans to handle the entrance of Mesa Air Group into the interisland airline market, which has led to lower airfares. The superferry has been marketed as a lower-cost alternative to flying between the Islands. "How will they compete with that?" English asked.

Garibaldi said he believes people recognize that the low airfares are likely temporary. "We present a different value to the consumer. We present a choice," he said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.