Superferry officials talk of possible return

It has been nearly a full year since protesters turned away the Hawai‘i Superferry at Nawiliwili Harbor in a major grassroots statement of what Kauaians wanted for their island.

The future of the Superferry on Kaua‘i still remains up in the air.

“I’m really looking toward the future,” Tom Fargo, president and chief executive officer of Hawai‘i Superferry, said in a Friday phone interview with The Garden Island. “My sense is that people would like to find a way forward. I’m always optimistic.”

“Clearly the majority of our members are for the Superferry,” said Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce President Randy Francisco. “We also have members who are not for the ferry, but we understand their issues, which are related to the EIS, or some who just don’t want it.”

A Web poll conducted by The Garden Island shows that 39 percent of votes were cast in favor of the Superferry’s presumably immediate return to Kaua‘i; 11 percent more support a return to Kaua‘i while an Environmental Impact Statement is conducted; 17 percent endorse a return only after an EIS is completed; and 5 percent recommend further outreach to the people of Kaua‘i by Superferry officials.

Some 28 percent of votes were cast for an option saying the ferry should never return to Kaua‘i.

More than 3,000 votes had been cast as of 2:40 p.m. yesterday. The results are unscientific and should not be considered reliable, as any one person can vote as many times as desired in any category.

State Rep. Jimmy Tokioka said yesterday that his concerns regarding the Superferry are primarily with the process being followed properly and the EIS being conducted.

“From a business standpoint, I never had a problem with the Superferry,” Tokioka said. “Businesses should sink or swim on their own merits, and if they are responsible and follow the guidelines set by the county, state and federal governments … then I would be comfortable with the Superferry coming to Kaua‘i.”

Tokioka mentioned traffic mitigation in the area surrounding Nawiliwili Harbor and stringent invasive species and vehicle inspections as two issues that he would like to see addressed further.

Kaua‘i resident Richard Hoeppner, who was central in last year’s protest and is organizing today’s “Ferry Free Kaua‘i” anniversary celebration in Nawiliwili Park, agrees that the environmental review is critical.

“I would totally welcome them (the Superferry) with open arms if they completed an independent EIS. I never said anything like ‘sink the ferry,’” Hoeppner said Friday. “I tried to take the high road and said they should follow the law. Find out your environmental impact on our island and then come back, but not before.”

For his part, Fargo agrees, at least when it comes to Kaua‘i.

“The state just completed the rapid risk assessment that takes a look at our compliance with all of the environmental laws and processes,” he said. “It came out very positive, and I think it’ll be good when we have the EIS done because the EIS will reflect a lot of the same things as the rapid risk assessment.”

Fargo said that he expects a draft version of the EIS to be completed by Honolulu-based independent consultant Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd. around the end of the calendar year. At that point, the process will be opened for public comment, and a final EIS could be completed during the spring of 2009.

“We feel a very clear responsibility to make sure that we’re good stewards of the environment,” Fargo said, “and I think we’re demonstrating that in terms of our operations every day to Maui.”

In a written statement provided by spokeswoman Lori Abe, Hawai‘i Superferry outlined two immediate objectives in its quest to return to Kaua‘i:

“Demonstrating ourselves as a regular and responsible transportation service provider between the islands of O‘ahu and Maui, which we are currently doing, and engaging community, business and political leaders on Kaua‘i to listen to their thoughts and concerns, and share information on our progress.”

Fargo said that he’s spoken with acting Kaua‘i mayor Bill “Kaipo” Asing as well as mayoral candidates JoAnn Yukimura, Bernard Carvalho and Mel Rapozo, Kaua‘i Police Chief Darryl Perry, the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce and the Kaua‘i Economic Development Board, among others.

“My purpose was really just to listen to them, and to find out what their thoughts and concerns were, and to show them all the data we had from over 400 trips to Maui,” said Fargo, who joined the company just weeks after the daily trip between O‘ahu and Maui began, finally uninterrupted, in April of this year. “The answer right now is to get as much information in front of both the people and the leadership of Kaua‘i as possible.”

Francisco said the meetings have been productive.

“I feel they’ve worked very hard and would continue to do so,” he said. “They’ve made a genuine effort to communicate. … We certainly want to work with them, so that those who don’t want it because of what they have heard can reconsider it, based on the facts that have taken place since the launch on Maui this spring.

“We’re trying to see what we can do to make the return safer, and practical and fair,” Francisco said.

However, state Sen. Gary Hooser said yesterday that, while Fargo has kept him personally abreast of developments, he believes more outreach is needed.

“It’s up to Hawai‘i Superferry to make connections with various segments of the Kaua‘i community. This is between Hawai‘i Superferry and the Kaua‘i community, not between Hawai‘i Superferry and the elected officials,” Hooser said. “I haven’t seen it yet. … They still have some work to do.”

Another impediment to the Superferry’s return to Kaua‘i, and possibly the final one, is a simple lack of hardware.

Fargo said that the company’s second vessel, currently being built in Mobile, Ala., is roughly 80 percent complete, and he expects it could be seaworthy early in 2009. By the time it arrives in Hawai‘i, possibly in March or April, the first vessel, “Alakai,” will be due for its two- to four-week-long annual maintenance.

Only after the “Alakai,” a 350-foot catamaran that can haul 866 passengers and 282 cars, returns to service will a regular run to Kaua‘i likely be feasible.

“I’d like to see it (the second ship) operate to Kaua‘i. We’ve always said that we’d like to serve all four islands, and that’s still our hope,” Fargo said. “We have to see what the demand was for service. A lot depends on the leadership in Kaua‘i. I think, more realistically, it would probably happen after the draft EIS comes out. But I won’t rule anything out.”

The EIS was originally required under Section 343 of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, which states that an environmental assessment is required for projects that, among other conditions, “Propose the use of state or county lands or the use of state or county funds.”

Because the state provided some $40 million for harbor improvements and barges for the ferry to unload passenger vehicles, an environmental assessment should have been triggered.

However, Gov. Linda Lingle and the state’s Department of Transportation provided the Superferry with a special one-time exemption to Section 343, allowing the company to circumvent the law and move forward with its plans.

Last summer, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled that the DOT had erred when it granted the exemption.

Despite the ruling, the inter-island catamaran set sail for Kaua‘i on Aug. 26 with its first-ever load of passengers and cars traveling from Honolulu on deeply discounted $5 fares. Protesters stalled the unloading of the Superferry for hours before relenting.

The next day, more than 60 surfers, swimmers, kayakers and outrigger canoe paddlers clogged Nawiliwili Harbor and prevented the boat from docking altogether despite a heavy local, state and federal law enforcement presence both in and out of the water.

On shore, more than 1,000 residents lined the narrow jetty road, many waving “Bury the Ferry” signs and shouting, “Go home.”

The Superferry has not since returned to Kaua‘i.

In October 2007, Maui Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza ruled in favor of three environmental groups by ordering Superferry to suspend service to Kahului Harbor until the environmental assessment was completed — a ruling in accordance with the state’s highest court.

Then, answering Lingle’s request for a special session to address the issue, state legislators passed a law on Oct. 30 allowing the company to operate under some added restrictions while a comprehensive environmental impact statement is completed, clearing all legal hurdles standing in the way of the company’s operation.

• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at mlevine@kauaipubco.com

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