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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:36 a.m., Monday, August 20, 2007

Hawaii Superferry facing 2 legal challenges this week

The Maui News

KAHULUI — Opponents of the Hawaii Superferry haven't given up trying to sink plans to begin interisland ferry trips without more environmental study.

While anticipation builds about the beginning of Superferry service later this month, judges on Maui and in Honolulu are set to hear two legal challenges this week.

The first will be on Wednesday when 2nd Circuit Judge Joel August hears arguments on whether the state Department of Transportation has done enough to study the Superferry's traffic impacts, said Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, one of two plaintiffs, the other being the Kahului Harbor Coalition.

On Thursday, the Hawaii Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a July 2005 ruling by 2nd Circuit Court Judge Joseph Cardoza, who dismissed a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition seeking an environmental impact statement for $40 million in harbor improvements. But the state has argued that harbor projects don't trigger the need for an EIS. Those improvements include barges, a ramp, fencing and utilities provided for the ferry in Kahului, Honolulu, Nawiliwili and Kawaihae harbors.

"We're optimistic" about both cases, Bowie told The Maui News on Sunday. "This is not a fait accompli at this point."

She said the groups want judges to stop planned Superferry operations until more studies, particularly traffic-related, are done.

"We do think there is going to be a traffic impact," Bowie said. "It's already crowded in Central Maui."

During Saturday's open house, people visiting the Superferry parked at Maui Community College and were bused to the harbor, Bowie pointed out.

"There's no preparation or plan . . . no parking facilities," she said. "It just looks not ready. . . . We're still not seeing infrastructure a couple of weeks before operations."

The shuttle between MCC and the harbor was necessary, in part, because the Superferry had as many as 4,000 residents seeking a peek during Saturday's open house. During regular operations, the 350-foot Alakai will only be able to accommodate a maximum of 866 passengers and 282 subcompact cars. Superferry officials anticipate the ferry will carry an average load of about 400 passengers and 110 vehicles of mixed sizes including motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses per trip.

Also commenting on the open house, Bowie said she thought there were "a lot of curious people coming down to see it." She said she wasn't convinced public interest in the Superferry would be sustained after its novelty fades.

On June 1, Maui Tomorrow and the Pacific Whale Foundation staged what they said was a traffic demonstration to show the extent of congestion in Central Maui when hundreds of vehicles leave the harbor around the same time. Superferry officials observed the demonstration and said it didn't include the ferry's traffic-mitigation plans. Those include having off-duty police officers direct traffic at intersections until motorists become accustomed to the ferry's presence. The company also will have its own traffic gatekeeper at the ferry's exit gate to control the flow of vehicles out of the harbor and onto public streets.

The 350-foot ferry can accommodate more than 200 cars and trucks, but ferry officials believe a typical load would be around 110 vehicles, and those could clear out in 15 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, assuming the Superferry begins operations, Maui farmers are eyeing it as an option to transport their goods to other islands.

That's part of the reason the Maui County Farm Bureau and its 200 members farmers, ranchers and their supporters supported the arrival of the first of two Superferrys, the Alakai, to the islands.

"I think it's great," said Maui Farm Bureau President Warren Watanabe, a day after attending the Superferry's open house. Watanabe also served on a citizens' advisory council to the Superferry.

"It was never the intention of the ferry to be a crop carrier," Watanabe pointed out Sunday. But he said his organization is holding discussions with the Hawaii Superferry about the possibility of using the ferry to carry Maui produce and flora.

"Like anything new, we'd have to go through the process and iron out the kinks. You never know until you try it," Watanabe said.

At the moment, Maui farmers transport most of their items between islands on the Young Brothers barges, in Matson containers or on airplanes.

"The Superferry would be another option," Watanabe said.

Many farmers, however, have concerns about using the Superferry. For example, when it makes its first interisland trip with paying passengers and vehicles on Aug. 28, it leaves Maui at 11 a.m. and doesn't get into Oahu until three hours later, at around 2 p.m.

"For sales that day, it probably would be too late for farmers," Watanabe said.

Also, a farmer would need to adhere to the Superferry's requirement that a driver be on hand for every vehicle boarding the vessel, thus adding to the cost of transporting such goods.

Watanabe said that given the ferry's schedule, a farmer using the ferry would also have to pay for overnight arrangements for a driver on Oahu or Kauai.

Still, Watanabe said his organization isn't counting out the ferry.

"Farmers have to look at what customer they're targeting, and they may still want to use the ferry," he said.

One advantage of the ferry over the current barge schedule at Kahului Harbor is that it sails out daily. The barges take on Maui produce only three times a week, Watanabe said.

Another option is that two farmers might consolidate their goods into one refrigerated truck and share the costs of using the Superferry to get their goods out of Maui and into Oahu, and possibly even Kauai.

Farmers are concerned about produce and plant inspections and have been lobbying the state Department of Transportation, which oversees Hawaii's harbors, to build a new alien species inspection facility such as the one being constructed at Kahului Airport.

State Sen. Shan Tsutsui of Wailuku called for an environmental impact statement more than a year ago, hoping that concerns about invasive species and inspection of plants would be satisfied by the Superferry. Legislation to require an EIS failed this past session.

"Obviously, we're still concerned," he said Sunday. "At this point, it's in the hands of the Department of Transportation."

He said none of the state's senators, including him, was able to visit the Superferry this weekend at the Kahului Harbor. Many of the approximately 4,000 residents including family and friends of Superferry employees gave rave reviews for the vessel during Saturday's open house.

Central Maui's state Rep. Joe Souki, who did not believe an EIS was necessary, also did not visit the Superferry.

"I hope it works well for Maui," he said.

But Souki still has some doubts. With roundtrip interisland airfares priced below $100, and the Superferry ticket prices costing more, Souki said he's not sure how the ferry will work out.

"It can be a positive effect," he said. "We'll just have to see."

For more Maui news, visit The Maui News.