Rob Parsons

Superferry Progress Report

With failing grades across the board, Hawaii Superferry may be the biggest boondoggle in state history

by Rob Parsons

March 12, 2009

After more than a full year of operation, it's time to give the albatross of inter-island travel known as the Hawaii Superferry a progress report. Has the high-speed ferry service given indications it can be profitable in the long term? Has there been justification for Gov. Linda Lingle leading the charge, with state legislators close behind, to rewrite the state's environmental laws to allow Superferry to operate? Has the entire state been taken for a choppy, 40 knots per hour, $45 million ride? And is this the biggest boondoggle in state history?

Living up to expectations and promises: D-

In 2004, Hawaii Superferry's (HSF) promotional pitch was for a convenient way to connect the islands, at half the cost of inter-island airfares. With Oahu as the hub, the "fast-ferry" would provide vehicle and passenger shuttles to Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

In the 18 months since HSF launched its service in September 2007 (with a special $5 rate that flaunted a Supreme Court decision days earlier that would have kept them docked until an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared) only the Maui route has materialized. Kauai issues have never been resolved in the year and a half since protesters paddled out to prevent the massive vessel from entering Nawiliwili harbor.

The proposed route to Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island hasn't come to be either, as the arrival of HSF's second vessel has been delayed while the Austal shipyard in Alabama fits it with a loading ramp that could make the state's $38 million investment in a barge-and-ramp loading system obsolete.

Wise use of taxpayer's money: F

Beyond the $40 million originally appropriated by the state legislature to support improvements to benefit HSF, recent articles and comments have highlighted millions more that have been or will be spent. Among the unbudgeted, additional costs are: repair of the barge and pier damaged in Kahului harbor from winter wave swells (over $3 million); cost of a special legislative session, passing Act 2 to overturn a court ruling requiring environmental review; cost of an oversight task force and inspections of vehicles; cost to prepare a "pseudo" EIS as required by Act 2 (nearly $2 million); and deployment of Coast Guard, police and undercover security on Maui and Kauai.

Environmental sensitivity/protection: D

Whale collisions and the spread of invasive species topped the list of environmental concerns raised by citizens, and highlighted the need for legal review before HSF could begin service. HSF claimed they had worked out a whale avoidance policy, with whale spotters, night vision technology, and routes to minimize entering sanctuary waters during peak season. But the high-speed, 349-foot long Alakai was delivered without forward-looking sonar technology and the 882-ton vessel regularly speeds through the Penguin Banks area between Molokai and Lanai, averting the longer, rougher route along Molokai's north shore where whales are less frequently sighted.

Vehicle inspections geared toward prevention of invasive species transport have turned up another problem-plundering of Maui's marine resources. Inspectors confiscated hundreds of pounds of reef fish, limu (edible seaweed), opihi and even truckloads of river rock headed back to Oahu. With the oversight task force now disbanded, state inspection officers are no longer on the job, leaving the company employees responsible for monitoring what is transported.

Government Integrity/accountability: D

Repeatedly, HSF asked state officials and the public to trust them, and to expedite their approvals to allow them to prove their reliability. By and large, Gov. Lingle sloughed off criticism as though she were coated in Teflon and numerous state officials followed suit. Maui Rep. Joe Souki killed a House bill to require environmental review for HSF by refusing to schedule a hearing in his Transportation Committee. House Speaker Calvin Say-whose son is an HSF employee-led the charge during the special legislative session to pass Act 2. Attorney General Mark Bennett acted less like someone entrusted to interpret and enforce state laws in the public interest and more like Lingle's personal lawyer.

(A bit of good news: State Auditor Marion Higa issued her report in January, finding "that the legislation [Act 2] on behalf of Hawaii Superferry compromised the State's environmental laws and set a worrisome precedent for future government accommodation that puts the interests of a single business before the State's environmental, fiduciary, and public safety responsibilities." Higa's thorough audit is worthy of an A+, as are the efforts of State Sens. Shan Tsutsui, Kalani English, Gary Hooser and Russell Kokubun, who fought to heed community concerns and uphold laws requiring environmental review.)

Meanwhile, HSF contributed handsomely to the campaign spending accounts of key politicians, including Lingle and Souki. A recent Hawaii State Ethics Commission report shows that HSF was tops in lobbying expenditures, with more than $380,000 spent during the past 14 months.

Ease of travel and reliability: C

Shortly after an unplanned trip to dry-dock in February 2008 for repairs (exacerbated when a tugboat dented the vessel, and when it shifted on its blocking, damaging both hulls) the Superferry resumed service. In early April, strong trade winds and ocean swells caused seasickness in more than half the passengers onboard. Again this past January, rough oceans nauseated passengers, damaged more than a dozen vehicles and forced cancellations.

Under better weather conditions, the ferry service has earned praise from some of its regular commuters, and from visitors to Hawaii.

Economic feasibility: F

HSF has been unable to maintain vehicle and passenger loads of at least half-capacity, the stated operational break-even point. Fuel prices have vacillated greatly, which is of considerable concern given the Alakai's fuel-inefficient engines (which burn an astounding 6,000 gallons of diesel per one-way trip). Even with the addition of fuel surcharges, passed through to ferry users, the cost to power the Superferry is potentially crippling.

The infusion of large amounts of capital to bolster HSF by CEO John Lehman (leading neocon, New York City financier and Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan), has led many to believe he is less interested in seeing HSF succeed financially and more interested in doing a test run for the prototype Joint High Speed Vessel program. It is widely believed that Lehman's investments in shipbuilding could be the principal reason for his involvement in promoting HSF, as an awarded Pentagon contract to construct the aluminum-hulled JHSV fast-catamarans could be worth billions of dollars.