KAHULUI - When Hawaii Superferry left Kahului Harbor on Thursday for what could very likely be its last voyage, many of the people impacted were business owners, entrepreneurs and commuters who'd come to depend on the inexpensive alternative form of transportation between Maui and Oahu.
General contractor Kamalei Hill was among the people who'd been using the 350-foot Alakai to move equipment, materials and himself between jobs in Honolulu and his home in Wailuku. Over the past 11 months of service, he said, he'd used the ferry at least once a month.
"There was a savings in a monetary sense and then in a time sense," Hill said from the loading dock last week. "The other methods take days, while this is just hours. You're off the ferry and on your way to work.
Helen Brown naps in her van while waiting to board the Alakai on Thursday at Kahului Harbor. The former Upcountry resident, who now resides in Honolulu, said she will miss the convenience, but not its potential impacts. “I see both sides,” she said. “I like going on it, but it’s not good for the environment.”
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos
"I'm all for environmental protection, but what about all the other maritime vessels that use the harbors? The cruise ships and Young Brothers (Ltd.'s) barges and ships carrying gas never had to go through all this. It doesn't seem fair."
When the Alakai made its unexpected last trip, the loading area was about half full of vehicles and drivers clearly on business. Love's Bakery trucks joined limousines and fleet vans to enter the ship, which could hold up to 800 passengers and 200 cars.
Warren Watanabe, farmer and executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said Hawaii Superferry had provided bureau and Maui Farmers' Cooperative Exchange members with a 30 percent discount to bring meat, produce and flowers to markets on Oahu. More and more farmers and ranchers were beginning to use the ferry, he said.
Even without the discount, merchants said the Superferry was at least 50 percent cheaper than using the airlines or barges.
Passenger Morgan Migita of Honolulu said he had come to Maui with his pickup truck for about $150 to do construction work. Just shipping his truck via Young Brothers would cost him at least $500, he said.
At a time when shipping and fuel costs continue to rise and the number of people who can make a living in agriculture keeps plummeting, Watanabe said that Superferry provided some hope.
He noted that it was growing in popularity, since the Alakai allowed refrigeration trucks to plug in to power outlets during the voyage, a feature not offered by competitors.
According to Superferry, the Alakai had transported almost 7,000 trucks while it was in service, as well as more than two million loaves of Love's bread. The company did not immediately have any more specific information on the number of commercial customers it had served.
The state Supreme Court effectively grounded the Superferry last week, when it ruled that the law allowing Superferry to continue operations while the state completed and environmental impact statement on harbor improvements was unconstitutional.
The EIS was supposed to be complete in May. But state Department of Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said Friday that work on the EIS was now expected to take another six months. DOT officials will first conduct an environmental review of its $40 million in Superferry-related harbor improvements, he said.
The new environmental review will use existing data to follow Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 343, which is "a suggested framework for judicial review of challenges to the adequacy of an EIS" prepared under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. In the meantime, the contractor hired by the state to author the EIS, Belt Collins, will cease all its work, Morioka said.
The justices had deemed the state Legislature's 2007 Act 2 unconstitutional since although it referred to "large capacity" interisland ferries, it was actually accommodating only Superferry. The state is not allowed to write laws that single out one company, unless it's for land transfers, the justices wrote.
Lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle said that the opinion is incorrect and could preclude a great deal of other legislation. Lingle announced last week that the attorney general's office intends to ask the Hawaii Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.
Environmentalists, cultural preservationists and regular folks who feared Superferry's potential impacts to rural island life, whales and the natural landscape were happiest with the Supreme Court decision.
However, a lot of other residents said they supported the idea of a ferry, but disagreed with how state and company officials apparently worked together to get it operating as fast and with as little government regulation as possible.
Hawaii Superferry laid off its 236 Hawaii employees starting Friday.
Superferry President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Fargo said last week that the company will continue to exist with minimal staffing, and would look to charter the Alakai anywhere in the world while waiting to see if and when a solution to the company's problems is delivered in Hawaii.
As of late 2007, Superferry had invested $300 million into its business venture.
Fargo said when the ferry stopped operations, there were 16,000 outstanding bookings. He said the ferry filled a niche in Hawaii.
"You've probably seen the outrage in the small-business community over this," he said.
Superferry ignited its own share of outrage when some members of an Oahu church were caught with two pickup trucks illegally loaded with imu rocks gathered from a Maui stream.
The Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Kahului Harbor Coalition sued to cease Superferry operations until a full EIS was completed.
Attorney Isaac Hall called the EIS to date inadequate and flawed and demanded that the state restart the process, which could take at least a year. The group wanted the EIS to consider "secondary impacts" such as the potential for collisions with whales, and the movement of invasive species between islands.
It was not until the Supreme Court's August 2007 ruling that ships operating in Hawaii's open waters were required to assess the potential for secondary impacts, Morioka said.
Meanwhile, Maui farmer Juan Hamilton on Thursday said he was disappointed that this could be the ferry's final voyage. Hamilton, of Mahina Aina Farms in Kipahulu, said he was taking 400 pounds of citrus to Oahu and some avacados to sell.
"It's the only way I can get my produce to Oahu fresh," he said.
Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maui News Staff Writer Melissa Tanji contributed to this report.