Hawaii Superferry ceases operations, its future remains uncertain

Alakai departing from Kahului on Maui for Honolulu. The fast catamaran took its last run on March 28, less than a year after the Hawaiian inter-island service began. Alan Haig-Brown

Hawaii Superferry, a popular but troubled inter-island car ferry service, abruptly ceased operation after a court struck down a law that had enabled the vessel to operate without the customary environmental studies.

The Hawaii Supreme Court on March 16 ruled that the state law known as Act 2 is unconstitutional. Twelve days later, the 350-foot catamaran Alakai departed Honolulu Harbor for the final time. Instead of carrying tourists and cargo to Maui, this time Alakai was headed back to the Alabama shipyard where it was built to await a new assignment.

The much-anticipated 230-car ferry debuted full-time in April 2008, sailing out of Honolulu to Kahului Harbor on Maui and back again. More than 250,000 passengers used Alakai during its 11 months of regular operation.

While the ferry was in service, the operation was in the midst of an extensive environmental impact analysis. Scientists were studying the high-speed vessel’s effects on aquatic mammals and the spread of invasive species and the impact of increased recreational vehicle traffic on the islands. State lawmakers had taken the unusual step of passing Act 2 in 2007 to allow the ferry to enter trade before the environmental impact statement (EIS) was finished.

The law drew the ire of environmental activists, who argued that the Superferry would harm whales, dolphins and turtles and should not be exempted from the normal state regulations. Three environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, filed suit against the state Department of Transportation. In a 124-page decision, the state Supreme Court decided unanimously that crafting a separate law specifically for a “large capacity inter-island ferry" unconstitutionally exempted a single business from rules that apply to everyone else.

Just three days after the ruling, Alakai made one final round-trip voyage between Oahu and Maui to ensure that all of its customers’ vehicles were able to return home. Hawaii Superferry issued a statement explaining that the only reasonable action would be to stop sailing.

“We are hugely disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision that Act 2 is unconstitutional," the company said. “While the appeal is not yet final because a judgment on appeal has not been entered, we want to proceed prudently and have decided to cease operations for the present."

The shutdown caused the dismissal of 161 full- and part-time employees. An additional 75 contract employees also were out of work. The company said it had no alternative.

“There appears to be no short-term solution to this ruling," said Tom Fargo, president and chief executive of Hawaii Superferry. “To conduct another EIS, even with the work done to date, and move it through legal review might take a year or so. Other options don’t provide the certainty necessary to sustain a business. As a result, we are going to have to go out and find other employment for Alakai, for now."

State legislators and regulators said they intend to complete the $1.7 million environmental impact study in hopes of resurrecting the service in future years. Although the process must start over under a new framework, state Department of Transportation officials believe the environmental research that already has been completed can be transferred to the new effort. The plans to complete the EIS leave open the possibility that Hawaii Superferry or another company could resume ferry service.

The money-losing service quickly experienced disruptions, court injunctions and cost overruns. Its first voyages in August 2007 were met by protesters who temporarily blockaded arrivals at Kauai.

Aside from the environmental controversy, critics argued that the ferry was rushed into service without the proper harbor infrastructure on Maui and the “Big Island" of Hawaii. A large-enough dock was absent, so a barge-and-ramp system was installed at Kahului Harbor. A state auditor’s report called the makeshift docking arrangements “inadequate." The state faced a $414,000 bill to repair stress-related damage to the dockside barge, which was held against the pier by a tugboat when the ferry was present.

In October 2008, Hawaii Superferry announced that its second planned vessel arriving from Austal USA shipyard would not enter its scheduled service to the Big Island, due to the economic crisis. Instead, the 370-foot catamaran, Huakai has been offered for lease in Europe.

Suddenly unemployed, Alakai arrived back at the Austal shipyard in Mobile, Ala., in early April. No new customer was announced.

By Professional Mariner Staff