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Striking a Balance: A Mixed Message in Hawaii

Hawaii Superferry Suspends Operations After Court Decision – but at what cost?

As Hawaii’s new inter-island ferry service ceased operations this week in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling, my first thoughts went to the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people who would ultimately be affected by the ruling. Hawaii Superferry is a relatively new Oahu-Maui catamaran that carries about 800 passengers and about 200 vehicles in a market that previously was thirsting for this very service for many years. The firm says that it had carried as many as 250,000 people in its short 11-month history and “provided new economic opportunities for Hawaii's businesses.” This week, the high court rejected a state law that allowed the company to operate while an environmental study is being conducted. In the eyes of some people, and for the time being, the environment is again safe from a real threat. But how much of a threat to the environment was the Superferry?

A statement released by Hawaii Superferry declared, “Obviously we are hugely disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision that Act 2 is unconstitutional. We have operated on a regular, reliable and responsible basis for the past 11 months.” And it is difficult to argue with that position. Built to exacting standards, the Superferry is an advanced vehicle that incorporated the latest of environmentally friendly features into its design and operation, right down to the ship’s routing, its speed and even the paint on the hull.

To say that the operators had the best of intentions with the new service would be an understatement. I can say this with confidence, having spent almost three hours with John F. Lehman, the Superferry’s biggest proponent and investor, more than two years ago. In an exclusive interview that ran in our March 2007 print edition, Lehman said, “All of the abandoned farms, family farms, and local agriculture that have disappeared because there’s no inter-island transport are going to come back. It’s hard to imagine it, but this is one of the richest states in the union – three full growing seasons, and still they import 90% of their food.” Way ahead of his time, apparently, Lehman also talked about the ferry’s payload that could be configured to carry up to 28 full-size trucks, giving new meaning to the Maritime Administration’s popular buzzword, “shortsea shipping.”

All of that, apparently, will have to wait. Or perhaps it won’t come at all. The owners of the Superferry, after all, can’t wait forever. They’ve got a business to run. To be fair, and throughout the controversial legal process, there are those who criticized the Superferry’s operators for not waiting until the environmental reviews could be completed. There could be merit to that argument. On the other hand, no one seems to be even remotely concerned about cruise ships or other cargo vessels operating in those same waters. I for one would like to know what form the environmental review took for those craft, as well.

With operations suspended, Hawaii Superferry reluctantly prepared to begin releasing employees beginning Friday, March 20. A total of 236 positions are at stake. The ripple effect of that on the total economy, at a time when it can least afford to take that kind of hit, is unknown but will likely be significant. Nevertheless, the courts have spoken. When it is all said and done, the chance of a lifetime may have slipped by the boards. The ferry may have to be repositioned elsewhere and Hawaii’s residents and small businesses will go back to a way of life that often involves difficult and sometimes expensive inter-island travel and commerce. The goods news, in the opinion of the courts, is that the fish and the environment are safe. In reality, I don’t think either is any safer today than they were on Monday. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments or questions on this editorial and/or any other article in this e-newsletter at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com