The Mala ramp, West Maui's only boat launch ramp facility, has become so degraded that the concrete ramp and two loading docks need to be replaced, an $892,000 project that will require a 60-day closure.
State and county officials met with those who would be affected - mostly commercial operators and local fishermen - on Tuesday to discuss which two months would be best to schedule the closure.
"The docks are getting worse," Department of Land and Natural Resources Boating Engineer Eric Yuasa said at the meeting. "We've tried to do some Band-Aiding with plywood, but even that's falling apart. I cannot guarantee that it will be in operation for the next six months or even two months, the quicker we do it the better."
Mala ramp and its north and south loading docks have become deteriorated beyond repair and must be replaced.
Department of Land and Natural Resources photo
Department of Land and Natural Resources photo
The state department had originally scheduled the ramp closure for January and February of next year, but Yuasa and other officials were concerned the docks, which are more than 30 years old, would not last until then.
Officials with project contractor Goodfellow Bros. Inc. said they could start work as soon as October. Under the contract, construction may not take more than 60 days.
Most ramp users at Tuesday's meeting agreed that while two months without access to the ramp would pose some challenges to businesses, the project had to be done. Many advocated for "sooner rather than later."
"October and November is the time we'd lose the least amount of money, instead of waiting until next year and having the ramp collapse and then we'll all be screwed," said Mark Runyon, who works for Captain Woody's, a Lahaina company that uses Mala ramp regularly for its snorkeling tours. "I'd say do it sooner rather than later."
Some boaters suggested a "half-and-half" plan in which half of the ramp would remain open and available for use while the other half would undergo construction. That way, commercial operators and fishermen would still have access to the ramp, instead of having to forgo all activity for two months.
But officials said keeping half of the ramp open would be impractical, costly, unsafe and take more time.
"The ramp is only 37 feet wide, and some of the boats already use the whole ramp," Yuasa said. "If the ramp was wider, maybe you could do half-and-half, but even then it would be more costly and take longer and we'd probably have to rebid it."
Yuasa added that safety would be an issue, considering the amount of traffic at the ramp with ongoing construction. Additionally, it would be nearly impossible to coordinate traffic in the area because environmental pollution controls such as full-depth silt curtains and sandbags surrounding the entire work area would be put in place to prevent debris from going into the ocean.
The state is considering options for regular Mala ramp users, including possibly waiving harbor permits for operators that must temporarily relocate their business to other sites, such as Maalaea and Lahaina harbors or the Kihei boat ramp.
Offshore mooring, in which boats are tethered to an anchoring point further out to sea, is another option, although some boat operators were concerned with its potential risks and hazards.
"I would rather shut down for two months than risk losing my business if my boat drifts away on a mooring or if a tsunami or hurricane comes," said Erik Stein, who has owned and operated Extended Horizons scuba charters out of Mala Wharf for more than 25 years.
Stein, who first noticed the deterioration of the ramp and loading docks in 2006 and reported it to the department's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, said that while he doesn't want to lose his six employees by having to shut down operations for two months, he knows that the replacement project is necessary.
"I recognize that it is a gift to the community that our politicians were actually able to push this through for West Maui because for so long, Mala (boat ramp) has been the deaf child of harbors on Maui, so I'm grateful we can have whatever we can have even if we have to juggle our business for two months," Stein said.
West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey and South and West Maui Sen. Roz Baker, who helped lobby for $223,000 in state funds for the project, also attended Tuesday's meeting.
"Everybody is going to be impacted one way or another," McKelvey said. "We got to remember that the majority (of funding) is federal dollars that came from Uncle Dan (Inouye), so there will be no more funding if we cannot figure something out. It will be pau hana time, permanently."
A follow-up meeting has been tentatively scheduled for June 18, after state officials and the contractor discuss possible timelines, Yuasa said.
Affected boaters with concerns related to access at the Mala boat ramp may send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.