Grassroot Testimony: SB 2618 (Ferry Feasibility Study)

To: House Committee on Finance
Rep. Sylvia Luke, Chair
Rep. Scott Y. Nishimoto, Vice Chair

From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
President Keli’i Akina, Ph.D.

Comments Only

Dear Chair and Committee Members:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on SB 2618, which would require the Department of Transportation to feasibility study of establishing an interisland ferry system.

It is a tribute to the enduring impact of the Superferry that so many years after its demise, there remains a strong interest in seeing it restored. That this continues to come before the Legislature on an annual basis speaks both to the local need for an interisland transport solution and the inability of the state to put forth a sound and viable plan for a replacement system. In this bill, there is the opportunity to create real leadership on this issue and rescue it from the mire of studies and debate that it has been bogged down in for years.

What is needed is a comprehensive consideration of all of the factors that could further hold up the creation of a ferry system. In addition to those identified in the bill, therefore, it might be useful to also consider:

  • What type of ferry system is envisioned—a fast ferry or more traditional ferry service? Because serious questions have been raised about the economic viability of a fast ferry, the state must do an honest assessment as to which is the most beneficial and frame the remaining questions around that solution. Moreover, while the bill specifically mentions studying domestic ferry systems in Alaska and Washington, it would also be useful to expand the scope of that directive to encompass successful international ferry systems, such as Australia/Tasmania ferry. This would also allow for serious consideration as to whether a publicly-owned and subsidized ferry would be better for the state than a private one.
  • What remaining regulatory hurdles remain for the construction of a viable ferry service? There are a number of regulatory considerations that could sink a ferry project from the outset or make its cost so burdensome that it will be difficult for it to survive. Foremost among such considerations is construction. For this reason, it would be wise for the feasibility study to consider how an exemption from the US-build requirement of the Jones Act may make a significant difference in the cost of construction and how that might affect the ongoing cost and operations of the ferry system.
  • How will routes and harbors be determined? The bill asks that the study identify appropriate routes and harbors for a ferry system, but neglects to offer any guidance on how such a determination should be made. Given that not all routes may be economically viable, it may be best to require the study to consider the probable use and popularity of the various routes, identifying which are ideal and which may compromise the profitability of the ferry.

At the time that the Superferry was discontinued, it had support from approximately 88% of Hawaii’s citizens.[1] This was a service that not only helped create jobs, but also provided a substantial benefit to local businesses. Companies like Love’s Bakery were able to use the ferry to improve distribution and save costs, making it a boon to Hawaii’s citizens and economy.

We have seen multiple failed attempts to bring back the Superferry in some form. What we truly need now is decisive action and leadership that will move the project forward. A study that effectively addresses the barriers to a new ferry and outlines a practical way forward is an important first step.

[1] Michael A. Lilly, “Why Hawaii Lost the Superferry.” Building Industry. (July 2009).

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