Rob Parsons

Musings on the Superferry Traffic Simulation

by Rob Parsons

June 07, 2007

My cell phone rang as I headed into Kahului for the June 1 Superferry Traffic Simulation exercise, organized by Pacific Whale Foundation and Maui Tomorrow. "Aloha Rob, this is 'Command Central,'" a cheery female voice said. "Where you stay?"

"I'm just coming up to K-Mart," I said, mentally noting how often we use big box stores and fast food outlets as points of reference when giving directions.

"Oh, good," she said. "Sounds like we'll see you in a few minutes. We're in the parking lot behind Burger King, by the old movie theater."

Another fast food landmark. This particular Burger King outlet was the first on Maui, and opened in the late 1970's, at a time when Saturday Night Fever was probably playing at the old Maui Theater. When it opened, it broke not only franchise records for best opening month, but it was the best month of sales for ANY franchise nationwide.

Nearly 30 years later, it still occupies the corner where six lanes of Ka'ahumanu Ave. meet the four lanes of Pu'unene Ave. It was here, on the grassy median in front of Burger King, that I would spend my morning, supervising a sign-waving crew while observing the effects of 120 more cars than usual entering the busy Kahului intersection, simulating cars disembarking the Superferry from Oahu.

I actually preferred my curbside assignment, as an advocate of carpooling, to that of driving one of the vehicles that staged back by the old Chart House. An old James Taylor diddy ran through my head: "Now I used to think that I was cool/Running around on fossil fuel/Until I realized what I was doin'/Was drivin' down the road to ruin!"

The point of the day's exercise was to illustrate what the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and Hawai'i Superferry (HSF) didn't see fit to study: the effects of a great number of vehicles converging on the Kahului Harbor area. HSF officials insist there will be no net impact, since one car would be leaving the island for every one that arrived. How they arrived at this bit of fuzzy math, they didn't say.

In fact, the simulation had taken on greater meaning with Circuit Court Judge Joel August ruling the day before that the DOT had failed to provide adequate traffic impact studies in their Final Environmental Assessment for Kahului Harbor improvements. He set a court date for August 2, before the arrival of the Superferry, which will not meet its July 1 target date for inter-island service.

HSF contracted a traffic study last year, and it revealed that the intersection where I stood would have Level of Service "F"-delays of 60 seconds or longer. What's more, the study didn't anticipate the added traffic of re-building the Old Kahului Shopping Center into a 450-plus unit mixed development.

We unfurled a banner which read "Superferry = Super Traffic Jams." Two sign-wavers joined me, Greg from Lahaina in his Save Honolua Coalition t-shirt and nine-year old Pulama, holding a sign that read, "One O`ahu is Enough."

Response to our signs was generally supportive, with lots of "shakas" and thumbs up, though I did notice a one-finger salute.

"What's that," laughed Greg. "His IQ?"

On this morning, traffic was substantial, but seemed to be flowing well enough, with the exception of the harbor side of Pu'unene Avenue by First Hawaiian Bank. It seemed that the bank, alerted by the press release for the event, had hired off-duty police to manage their traffic, and it virtually blocked any of the yellow-placarded demonstration cars from proceeding to the intersection.

"We're being sabotaged," Greg Kaufman, President of Pacific Whale Foundation and one of the organizers of the exercise, said. He reported that cars were driving in and right back out of the bank parking lot, effectively bringing the traffic simulation to a standstill.

"The stoplight cycle is only 30 seconds for green coming out of the harbor, and two-and-a-half minutes for red," he said. "At most, only three to five cars make it out on the green. They're helping us prove our point that 110 vehicles exiting the ferry will take more like two hours to offload, not the 15-to-30 minutes they claim."

Of course, the simulation did not include any of the 20 to 25 trucks and buses that would be the first off the Superferry. Nor did it include pedestrians getting dropped off, or shuttles, rentals and taxis coming in to pick up incoming passengers.

The one-hour window of the parade permit ended at 10:30 a.m., with an estimated 40 cars still waiting to clear the intersection. That's when police officers in orange vests stepped out into the middle of Ka'ahumanu Avenue and stopped traffic from all other directions to let the cars exit the harbor area.

The immediate effect was profound-traffic backed up completely in the other three directions as far as the eye could see. "What right will Superferry have to stop all other traffic in Kahului to suit their own needs?" Kaufman asked.

A couple weeks before the simulation, Kaufman and two Maui Tomorrow representatives met with Mayor Charmaine Tavares. Kaufman said he advised her that ILWU dockworkers aren't happy about the Superferry reducing their dock space. He said he asked Tavares to demand to see the Superferry's 100 percent Operational Plans, to determine what changes may be required, including additional signage and police.

The entire premise of the Hawai'i Superferry as a cheaper, more convenient mode of inter-island transport is in question. The new HSF tariff application to the Public Utitlity Commission raises one-way fares to $44-$54 for adult passengers, and an additional $59-$69 for small cars. Inter-island airfares, by contrast, have dropped to a low of $9-$39.

Then there's the matter of what happens if the Superferry never shows up. The public didn't like hearing that the state would be penalized $18,000 a day if they did not provide $40 million in contracted barges, ramps and other improvements in time for the ferry's target date. But will Superferry be held to the same kind of performance deal?

And will the state be out the $40 million in harbor improvements that were to have been re-paid over a 20-year period through Superferry's harbor user fees? Will they begin paying the interest on the loan-$200,000 a month-or will they default?

I ask these questions because HSF's $90 million dollar fast ferry, the Alakai, has completed one set of sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico, but now faces stringent stability and performance certification with the U.S. Coast Guard. No official reasons are being released about why the delivery of the Alakai is being delayed past the July 1 target launch date, and possibly not even anytime in August.

Not one of the HSF principles has any experience running a ferry service, though executive vice president Terry White was with American Hawai'i Cruises and defaulted on some $366 million in taxpayer-covered maritime loans. Big money man John Lehman, as a former Secretary of the Navy, may simply sell the vessel, should HSF's much-touted services end in failure. It seems that the military is waiting in the wings for ships of this type, and there is every reason to believe they could sell the boat for a profit, given their connections and the pork-filled military budget.

As I reflect upon an enjoyable morning spent waving to drivers and passengers in Kahului traffic, I wonder if Hawai'i residents may soon be waving good-bye to the ferry-tale story of Hawai'i Superferry, the biggest corporate welfare scheme ever foisted on the state. Will we also be saying aloha to tens or hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars?