- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

HONOLULU (AP) - The Hawaii Superferry now sits forlornly in Honolulu’s harbor, idled by a court ruling. It’s the latest twist in the short saga of the first interisland car and passenger ferry service.

The fate of the ferry has always been choppy, from its birth in 2001, through protests, to a surprise state Supreme Court decision last week that shut down the service.

Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature are expected to ask the court to reconsider. But a reversal by the five justices, who ruled that the service can’t operate without a full environmental assessment, is believed by backers and opponents to be an unlikely prospect.

So at this point, the future of the ships built to carry up to 800 passengers and 200 vehicles looks bleak. Interisland travelers are scrambling for options, and scores of former employees are scouting for jobs in a dour economy.

“It’s very unfortunate,” said Mahina Martin, community and communications director for Charmaine Tavares, the mayor of Maui who backed the idea of an interisland ferry but didn’t like the way it was being pursued.

The latest legal ruling “is a great opportunity to try to encourage businesses that want to do business in Hawaii to do it correctly, because the process is as important as the end product,” said Martin, who served on the company’s Maui advisory board until 2007. “Follow the existing laws.”

Lingle, however, remains unapologetic about her chessboard moves on behalf of the Superferry despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of them.

“I certainly feel our administration acted always in accordance with the law and clearly made the right decisions,” she said last week.

It was about six years ago that founder Timothy Dick’s concept of a high-speed, vehicle- and passenger-carrying ferry traversing the waters of Hawaii’s inhabited islands first started to attract the active opposition of environmentalists.

They were mainly concerned that the Superferry’s 349-foot-long catamaran would strike whales, spread invasive species and create traffic jams at its destinations, first on Maui and later on the Big Island and Kauai.

The ferry’s critics also included residents of other islands who said their concerns were ignored. Kauai’s opponents were so inflamed in 2007 that some banged on the cars of passengers arriving on the ferry while others rode kayaks and surfboards in attempts to block the vessel’s docking.

Eventually, the company suspended its Kauai route.

On the other side was Lingle, a Republican who pushed to bypass state rules so the ferry could operate without having to first complete a thorough environmental impact statement that existing law otherwise required.

The Democrat-led Legislature largely agreed with the strategy. After the state Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the governor’s administrative action was invalid, legislators passed and she signed a law allowing the ferry to operate while an environmental assessment was completed.

It was that law the Supreme Court threw out last week, ruling that it was unconstitutionally designed to benefit only one company _ the Superferry.

Beyond the political and legal wrangling, the traveling public seemed happy with the new option, even if the oft-choppy waters between the islands left more than a few passengers with tussled tummies. The company said it had more than 250,000 bookings since it went into regular service in December 2007.

Many a business, from big companies such as Love’s Bakery and Fed Ex to mom-and-pop farmers, used the ferry as a cheaper means of moving goods from island to island.

Still, storm clouds gathered.

Last October, the Superferry announced that it would postpone delivery of its second ship to link Oahu and the Big Island because of the state’s depressed economy. Both ships were built specifically for Hawaii waters by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

Travelers also were declining with the economic downturn, from almost 19,000 passengers and 5,700 vehicles in November to 13,300 passengers and 4,300 vehicles in January, according to the company.

The vessel made its last voyage, at least for now, on Thursday amid unanswered questions.

The work underlying the pending environmental assessment that was authorized by the overturned law now will be used in a new, more comprehensive report, state Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said. That report could take as long as the end of the year to finish.

But even after it is finished, more lawsuits could spring up. In the meantime, the ferry’s owners are seeking charter or military business to keep some money flowing and to keep alive their hope the Superferry saga has not ended.

___

On the Net:

Hawaii Superferry: https://www.hawaiisuperferry.com

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