Kaua‘i leaders: onus is on ferry to assess

Almost nine months after the Hawaii Superferry’s last visit to Kaua‘i, the carrier’s new chief executive has said service will not resume until the Garden Isle gives the OK.

Retired Navy Adm. Thomas Fargo, in his second week on the job as CEO and president, told The Honolulu Advertiser that the company would respond to a signal or request from the community to bring the ferry back.

He said a “momentum or view by the community” that service is desired, or a call from local leaders, could be considered a signal.

Fargo declined to comment to The Garden Island for this article.

Some of Kaua‘i’s business and political leaders said yesterday that the onus falls on the Superferry to take the pulse of the community.

State Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i/Ni‘ihau, said he and other elected officials can’t direct the company to return because it’s already legally entitled to do so.

“I’m not going to wave a flag, green or red,” he said. “It’s not my role.”

According to Hooser, passions have cooled somewhat but the underlying sentiment is unchanged. He called for increased community outreach by the company to determine when and if it will return to Kaua‘i.

Superferry spokeswoman Lori Abe said Hawaii Superferry continues its outreach on Kaua‘i; however, she did not respond to a request for more information about those efforts by press time.

For his part, Kaua‘i Mayor Bryan Baptiste said the complexities surrounding the issue have not abated.

“I’m not sure if we can come to a consensus; there’s so much passion on both sides,” he said yesterday. “My concern as mayor is the divisiveness this issue has caused in our community.”

Baptiste said the county would, however, support a forum or poll conducted jointly by state and Superferry officials.

Measuring sentiment

To date there has not been a Kaua‘i-specific independent study of public opinion, and what numbers are available range widely.

Last fall The Star-Bulletin commissioned a statewide study by SMS Research involving 150 telephone surveys each on O‘ahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kaua‘i.

Roughly 53 percent of Kaua‘i respondents said then that the ferry should be allowed to operate during the environmental assessment process; about 41 percent said it should not be allowed.

In addition, almost 51 percent of Kaua‘i respondents said they’d use the ferry if it started operations; 38 percent said they would not.

The margin of error for the individual islands was about 8 percentage points.

In January the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey among its members and found 79.5 percent of respondents supported the ferry’s decision to operate. Almost 86 percent said the Superferry will help, not hurt, business on Kaua‘i. And nearly 74 percent said they would patronize the vessel when service from Lihu‘e resumes.

About 20 percent of the Chamber’s members, who comprise the vast majority of small business on the island, took the online survey.

Kaua‘i Chamber president Randy Francisco said yesterday that pocket of support is still there. For an accurate read of island sentiment, he said, the Hawaii Superferry should look to the greater community, not businesses or county officials.

Another informal sampling of Kaua‘i opinion on Councilman Mel Rapozo’s Web site, kauaipolitics.blogspot.com, currently shows 88 percent of the 71 respondents do not want the Superferry to return.

Transportation needs

Since the August 2007 protests that turned away the Alakai from Nawiliwili Harbor, the state’s economic outlook as well as its means of interisland transportation have changed considerably.

Aloha Airlines’ passenger service folded in April, followed closely by ATA. Additionally, the temporary shut-down of Aloha’s cargo service, which carried 85 percent of Hawai‘i’s interisland air cargo, had many businesses worried that they’d be left in the lurch.

Last week the cargo operation received federal bankruptcy court approval to continue flying through May 14, when the sale of Aloha Airlines Cargo to Seattle-based Saltchuk Resources is expected to become official.

Francisco said in light of the recent instabilities it’s important for the business community to have other means of travel and transport.

“Businesses are more thirsty than ever to look at other options to help them survive,” Francisco said.

Some council members have been lobbied by mostly O‘ahu businesses to consider calling for the return of the passenger vessel as a means of transporting cargo.

So far the council’s response has been cool.

“I’m not inclined to put a resolution on council to change the current stance,” Councilman Tim Bynum said.

The council’s standing resolution asking that the Superferry undergo the normal environmental assessment process to identify and mitigate potential problems was adopted in 2005.

Hooser agreed that the recent vulnerability of cargo services in Hawai‘i has highlighted the need for reliable interisland options.

But before bringing Hawaii Superferry into the picture, Hooser said, the company needs to prove its reliability on Maui.

“Once they stabilize their service, that’s the time to begin discussions with the Kaua‘i community,” he said.

• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com

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