Rob Parsons

Sea Trial

Who will win: Hawaii Superferry or four state senators?

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
January 18, 2007

This week, shipbuilder Austal USA will launch the first of two 353-foot aluminum catamaran ferries in Mobile, Alabama for a series of open sea trials. They will deliver the first vessel to Hawaii Superferry in early spring.

Also this week, the state Legislature begins its 2007 session. Four outer-island state senators will be sponsoring legislation to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before the inter-island fast-ferry venture commences, currently projected for this summer.

Maui's Shan Tsutsui has taken the lead in crafting the bill, supported by J. Kalani English, Gary Hooser of Kauai and Russel Kokubun of the Big Island. Together they're looking to convince fellow senators of the grave concerns voiced by their Neighbor Island constituencies.

To date, Hawaii Superferry (HSF) has brazenly insisted that they don't need to prepare an EIS. They claim that the same has not been required of cruise ships, freight carriers or of Mesa Airlines (aka, go!). True, but none of them were proposing "a whole new method of transportation between the islands." With support from the state Department of Transportation, Governor Linda Lingle, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye and the courts, Hawaii Superferry has steamrolled community concerns over traffic, harbor infrastructure inadequacies, invasive species and whale strikes. Until now.

It's fitting that the Maui senate delegation should take the lead on questioning whether the red-carpet treatment afforded to HSF has followed legal guidelines or represented good governance. After all, Maui was the first community to raise the red flag.

Back in the fall of 2004, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and Planning Director Mike Foley called the DOT's Environmental Assessment study for Kahului Harbor Improvements "inadequate." Both called for further study of impacts through a full EIS.

At the same time, hundreds of paddlers who use Kahului Harbor's sheltered waters rallied against plans to extend Pier II into their training area and race course. Paddler Karen Chun posted the SaveKahuluiHarbor.com website, and garnered support from online paddlers worldwide. When it later became apparent that Young Brothers, Ltd. would be forced to forfeit much of their space to accommodate the massive ferry operation, she organized "Freight First" sign-waving protests on Ka`ahumanu Avenue.

In recent months, public awareness of Superferry impacts has grown on Kauai and the Big Island. Both islands have launched petition drives, and Kauai conducted a "drive-in" with some 150 cars converging on Nawiliwili Harbor to model the traffic jams the ferry could create (the Superferry is capable of carrying 282 cars and nearly 900 people at a time). When Neighbor Island residents traveled to Honolulu last fall to present a petition with over 5,000 signatures, Lingle refused to meet with them.

"The Hawaii Superferry has been bullying its way to service to our islands with the political help of our Republican governor and U.S. senators, over the objections of each of the three neighbor island councils in Hawaii, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island," said Kauai resident John Tyler Cragg, web author of superferryimpact.com. Cragg called the introduction of the ferries to the Hawaiian islands "a Pandora's box."

Cragg's website includes a quote by American Banker/Industrialist J.P. Morgan: "A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing: one that sounds good, and a real one." Originally proposed as a cheaper mode of travel, fuel costs have doubled in the past few years, while airfares have plummeted with the addition of go! airlines. But every so often the investment team behind Hawaii Superferry lets slip a bit of information on the real possible reason for plunging some $250 million-much of it in Title XI Maritime guaranteed loans-into this venture.

Six of HSF's 11 directors have ties to J.F. Lehman & Co., a private equity firm that has invested $71 million to date. Chairman of the Board John Lehman served as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. In March 2005 he told Pacific Business News that, "the Superferry plans to operate a Westpac Express, essentially to carry military equipment and ferry vehicles from Oahu to the Big Island on a daily basis."

This will make it easier for soldiers to train when the Stryker Brigade comes to Oahu and has to conduct training exercises on the Big Island.

But why should state taxpayers fork out $40 million for statewide harbor improvements for loading ramps and barges, and much more in federal tax dollars to support a military operation? Isn't it enough that the U.S. has already spent more than $350 billion on the War in Iraq?

State funding was among the questions raised two years ago, when Senate Bill 1785, introduced by English, sought to force Hawaii Superferry to do an EIS. Though it did not pass, it succeeded in dividing the funding appropriation into two $20 million awards. Last year, Tsutsui sought to withhold that second $20 million, and ultimately gained support in requiring the DOT and HSF to conduct three series of informational meetings throughout the islands.

A hostile crowd at Lihikai School last June blasted HSF and DOT officials for their secrecy over plans and refusal to prepare an EIS. The second round of required meetings shifted format dramatically, with no public testimony except for questions written on "post-it" notes which officials vowed to answer? eventually. A third meeting on Maui was recently postponed, as it fell on the eve of the 2007 legislative session, drawing criticism from English.

I asked Sen. Gary Hooser how he expected to garner support from his Oahu-centric senate colleagues, who historically have kept more than their fair share of Transient Accommodations Tax, federal transportation funds and harbor improvement dollars. He said he would rely on personal relationships, respect, values and the support for an EIS by three County Councils.

Another glimmer of hope appeared last month. That's when Judge Joel August reversed an earlier decision, allowing Maui Tomorrow, Kahului Harbor Coalition and the County of Maui legal standing in their challenge to the adequacy of the environmental assessment of harbor improvements as well as the 2025 harbor master plan. DOT has conceded that harbor use has outpaced the master plan and current infrastructure, and has begun work on a 2030 master plan.

Paddler Chun attended one of the recent 2030 planning sessions, and told me she was shocked that DOT was seeking dock space for three cruise ships. Harbor usage has already been strained over the past few years, as Norwegian Cruise Lines visits have increased from one to three ships. Time in port has also increased, from 35 to 105 hours weekly. Their 900-foot long vessels carry 2,000 visitors and 700 crewmembers.

Hawaii Superferry has avoided an EIS as if it were kryptonite. Yet, citizens continue to ask questions like What would prevent Oahu residents from plundering Neighbor Island reserves of fish, opihi, maile, and limu? What about transport of stolen goods and drugs? Will the Superferry kill whales?

HSF developed its much-touted Whale Avoidance Policy in accordance with the Humpback Whale Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) and gained their support in 2005. Since then, HSF has hired SAC Chairman Terry O'Halloran as their full-time spokesperson, a rather obvious conflict of interest.

HSF Executive Vice-President Terry White is also a SAC member, and a former VP of operations of American Hawaii Cruises, which required a taxpayer bailout on $366 million in Federal Maritime Loan Guarantees-the same funding source now being used to build the two ships at an estimated cost of $190 million.

John Garibaldi, HSF's CEO previously served as chief financial officer for Hawaiian Airlines, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003. Garibaldi sought compensation for stock options, and the Honolulu Advertiser reported in 2004 that Garibaldi had a note due in 2006 worth $286,465.

Should Hawaii Superferry go belly-up, as recently happened with a similar operation in Rochester, New York, will their principals still get paid? Will taxpayers have to pay their tab?

This much is clear: the refusal to abide by state and federal laws requiring a full EIS appears wrong and potentially harmful. HSF has said just give us all our approvals and funding and we'll address the impacts afterwards. That is exactly the opposite of what state law (Hawaii Revised Statutes 343, to be exact) requires-full review of potential impacts before any approvals.