Hawaii's First Passenger Services Sets Sail Despite Court Cloud over Environmental Concerns

Loaded with people paying a discount fare of just $5, the $95 million Hawaii Superferry made its maiden run Sunday with a rushed launch for a three-hour voyage to Maui -- the first passenger ferry service between the islands.

KAHULUI, Hawaii -- Loaded with people paying a discount fare of just $5, the $95 million Hawaii Superferry made its maiden run Sunday with a rushed launch for a three-hour voyage to Maui -- the first passenger ferry service between the islands.

Legal problems threatened to beach the giant catamaran like one of the whales that environmentalists fear it will run over, so the company moved up the debut by two days.

More than 500 passengers and crew, and 150 cars, were aboard when the four-deck, blue-and-white vessel emblazoned with manta rays pulled away from the dock to a chorus of cheers.

"It's beautiful," exclaimed Stephen Imamoto of Honolulu, who was traveling with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. "I don't like to fly ... You can't beat the price."

Imamoto said he wanted to try the first voyage to see if he gets seasick. Choppy water and strong wind between the islands have scuttled previous attempts at interisland ferry services with much smaller ships.


Even in seemingly calm seas, the Alakai swayed at times Sunday, causing some passengers to become nauseous as the ferry passed the green, rugged mountains of Molokai and Lanai.

Inside the 349-foot Alakai built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., passengers browsed the gift shop, played cards and ordered breakfast while watching live NFL Sunday football games on high-definition TV screens as the ferry sailed past Aloha Tower.

Alan and Terry Kahanu, of Kailua, arrived to board the ferry at 4:20 a.m. They and their four children sat in the first-class cabin, eating doughnuts and sushi.

"It's spectacular," said Alan Kahanu. "It's so nice to be able to walk around instead of having to be buckled in."

Before Sunday, the only way to travel among the Hawaiian Islands was with highly competitive local airlines now engaged in a fare war.

Superferry sold out its first voyage in 30 minutes Saturday, offering $5 one-way fares for passengers and the same for cars. More than 400 of those aboard got right back on the Alakai for the voyage back to Honolulu.

Superferry Chief Executive John Garibaldi, who mingled among passengers, said one reason for the service was to avoid a repeat of the effect of the nation's grounded airplanes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then, island residents and tourists dependent on air travel were stranded for several days.

Garibaldi said the voyage "went very, very well and the response was phenomenal from passengers."

The launch, originally set for Tuesday with fares 10 times that much, was moved up after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that the state should have required an environmental review before the Superferry started service. Three environmental groups have sued, concerned that the vessel could collide with humpback whales, spread invasive species and create long traffic delays.

A dozen protesters greeted the hundreds of enthusiastic passengers after the ferry docked at Maui's port.

Among the protesters on Maui was Joyclynn Costa of Haiku, who held a sign, "Respect our home." She said the company didn't consult with Maui residents about the service, which she said will pollute island waters.

The environmentalists' attorney, Isaac Hall, said he will seek an injunction Monday to prevent the Superferry from doing business until environmental studies are completed. Environmental reviews are typically required of projects that use state money and land, such as harbors, and they can take months or even years to complete.

Superferry supporters say it is being treated unfairly because other harbor users like cruise ships didn't have to go through extensive environmental reviews.

"These standards should apply to all players, not just the newest, the smallest and the most popular," said David Cole, the chairman, president and CEO of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., which invested $1 million in the ferry.

Superferry officials also say the ship's water jet propulsion system means there are no exposed propellers to strike aquatic animals.

State transportation officials had allowed the Superferry to start service, noting that the Supreme Court didn't explicitly say the ship couldn't run.

However, environmentalists pointed out that state law prohibits projects from operating during formal environmental studies.

Environmentalists said the company acted in bad faith by launching early and trying to build public support with steep discounts.

"This is really a slap in the face to the residents of Hawaii and to the state Supreme Court," said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter.

More than 19,000 people have signed up to take advantage of the $5 fare through Sept. 5. After that, round trips to Maui or Kauai, with taxes and a fuel surcharge, will cost more than $240 for one passenger and a car-- if the courts don't stop it. A second ferry being built in Mobile, Ala., is scheduled to serve the Big Island starting in 2009.


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Source: Associated Press

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