Pier improvement focus of plans for interisland ferries

LAHAINA – The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is moving forward with revised plans to build a new pier at Lahaina Harbor for interisland ferries.

“This whole project is about improving the piers for the ferries . . . that go to Lanai and Molokai,” DLNR Chairman William Aila said during a public information meeting hosted at the West Maui Senior Center on Wednesday. “It’s not a project about cruise ships or increasing capacity at the harbor, this project is to facilitate and make more safe and convenient the ability to transit between Molokai and Lanai. That’s the primary focus.”

About 15 residents attended the meeting Wednesday night.

When the project was first proposed in 2004, the community raised concerns about environmental and cultural impacts that construction of the new pier would bring. The Hauola Stone, King Kamehameha I Brick Palace, Pioneer Inn, Banyan Tree and Lahaina Courthouse are all historic and cultural sites located in the project area, department officials said.

The revised project, which was presented to the community at Wednesday’s meeting, significantly scales back the original proposal, from a 35-foot-wide pier to one only 20 feet wide. The reduced width of the pier eliminates the need for dredging and any possible impact on the coral reef, according to project documents. The new pier will be approximately 115 feet long and able to accommodate 100 passengers.

Other changes include eliminating parking stalls along Papelekane Street; changing the structure from two larger structures to four smaller structures connected by three open trellises; reducing the height of the structures from 17 feet to 14 feet; and using a preferred construction method to drill and set piles in place.

The project calls for the construction of two sewage pump-out stations, a concrete pedestrian walkway that connects to the new pier, replacement of the existing harbor master’s office, improvements to the passenger loading area, sidewalk expansion along Hotel Street and resurfacing a portion of Wharf Street.

The project is estimated to cost $11 million, with 80 percent of the funds coming from the Federal Transit Administration, DLNR chief engineer Carty Chang said in an email.

“We’d rather have the pier much larger, but I think as a concession to the community and to some of the concerns over coral degradation and additional dredging, I think it’s a wonderful compromise,” said David Jung, president of Sea Link of Hawaii, which operates ferry service to and from Molokai.

“We’ve got one of the busiest harbors in the state. Our ferry system and Lahaina Harbor is crucial. I think this is great,” Jung said of the revised plans.

The Lahaina Small Boat Harbor is home port to 34 commercial vessels and about 64 recreational vessels, according to a final environmental assessment that was filed and published by the state Office of Environmental Quality Control last month. It is used not only by the interisland ferries to Lanai and Molokai but also by commercial boat operators and by tender boats that shuttle cruise ship passengers to and from shore.

During busy times, ferry operators are forced to wait in the entrance channel for up to 15 minutes until the pier frees up, exposing ferry passengers to extra discomfort due to sea sickness and potential danger during rough ocean conditions, according to the document.

While the new pier, located about 60 feet north of the existing pier, is meant to alleviate some of the traffic specifically for interisland ferries, some operators are concerned that other vessels, namely cruise ships, will take priority.

“My concern is who’s going to be allowed to use it,” Stephen Panetta, a boat captain with the Lanai Expeditions ferry, said after the meeting. “If the Lanai or Molokai ferry are going to be able to use it exclusively or first-right refusal, I think that’s a good thing, but if it’s going to be the same struggle to get the boats in on the dock, we’re not getting anywhere.”

DLNR officials said that they did not have the authority to bar cruise ships or other commercial vessels from using the new pier once it is built but did say that the federal funds appropriated for this project were specifically oriented toward ferry use.

West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey, who attended the meeting Wednesday, said that he was very happy with the revised plans, even though the plans are not yet finalized.

“When this thing started, it was top-down heavy, very gaudy and out of place for the cultural resources that are there,” McKelvey said. “But this administration with (Chairman) Aila was committed to work with the historic foundation, Native Hawaiian community, us (lawmakers), the feds.”

McKelvey reassured ferry operators that “because we used Federal Transit (Administration) money, the ferry gets total kuleana.”

“The Molokai and Lanai ferry gets first use; when they’re not there then it’s first-come first-serve. The thrust is clearly ferries and then the community afterwards,” he said.

A series of federal, state and county approvals are still needed before the project may begin construction, and the department is still in the planning phase, project planners said. They estimate that the design phase will begin in early 2015, with the project going out to bid in late 2016. Construction is slated to start in 2017 and take about a year.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at