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Report: New ferry system not feasible

While support is strong, better ferry technology is needed

A ferry system to relieve Lahaina-bound traffic jams and shuttle sports teams within Maui County isn’t in the cards, at least for now.

A state Department of Transportation study published in December concluded that an interisland ferry system just isn’t cost-effective at this point. And, even though support for a ferry is widespread, it’s unlikely to become a reality until better ferry technology creates faster and cheaper travel for passengers.

“While the interest or support for a ferry system, interisland or other, is significant, the pool of likely users is relatively insignificant,” the report says. “Financially, none of the proposed ferry systems is self-sustaining, and a state subsidy is largely the missing factor in making the numbers pencil.”

Ferry service between Maui and Molokai, Maui and Oahu, and West and Central Maui were among the ferry systems that the study examined. All of the systems were considered “infeasible,” whether due to the lack of space, the costs of pier improvements, the number of expected users and expected revenue.

While “no state depends on ocean or water transport to the degree Hawaii does,” interisland ferry systems have struggled to stay afloat, including the WikiWiki Ferry, which ran from 1999 to 2000 on Oahu, and the Superferry, which lasted from 2007 to 2009 and ferried passengers between Maui, Oahu and Kauai.

Many studies on ferry service in Hawaii have come to the same conclusion: A ferry system “would operate at a deficit” and need government funding to stay in business.

In general, however, “Hawaii is very open to the concept of a ferry system.” Of the 1,500 residents surveyed, 81.5 percent either somewhat or strongly supported an interisland ferry. Most people preferred a vessel that could transport both passengers and vehicles.

A ferry between Honolulu and Kahului received the most support, with 63.3 percent of people ranking it a first or second priority. A ferry between Lahaina and Kaunakakai was the second-most supported, with 34 percent of people ranking it a first or second priority.

In October 2016, the ferry that serviced Molokai and Maui ceased operations after 30 years. A $105,000 county subsidy couldn’t offset the declining ridership and major losses sustained by the ferry operator, Sea Link of Hawaii.

The ferry was useful to traveling sports teams and commuters who worked in West Maui. Eighty percent of the Molokai residents surveyed said they had used the ferry in the past. However, demand may not be enough — 37.2 percent said they would be very likely to use a ferry again in the future, and 31.4 percent said they were not at all likely to use the system.

Unlike many harbors statewide, Kaunakakai Harbor has the facilities to support a ferry. But financially, a ferry to Molokai just doesn’t pan out, according to the study, which calculated revenue based on ridership and what people were willing to pay.

For the Molokai ferry, the optimal price for one adult round-trip ticket was calculated at $90. If 101 people rode the ferry every day (the “realistic” average in the study but almost four times the daily ridership in the Molokai ferry’s final days) at that price, they would generate about $3.3 million in revenue, just shy of the $3.4 million minimum expected operating costs.

Given the costs and assuming no federal assistance, a Maui-to-Molokai ferry would require $1.8 million in state subsidies, which would cover 52 percent of the ferry’s operating costs.

Regardless of the numbers, “anecdotal comments from all participants accentuate a very real need for this service to be restored,” the study says. “This service may not be commercially feasible, but it is needed.”

Kahului Harbor, meanwhile, was the most popular interisland ferry destination from Honolulu among people surveyed. However, the harbor has such high traffic that it could not handle a ferry service. While the facilities are sufficient, “the piers are never available.”

“Previous administrations have contemplated the development of a ferry and cruise facility on the west side of Kahului Harbor, but the strong current and surge are not ideal for other operation there,” the study adds. “The development of a new pier on the opposite side of the existing Pier 2 may be an option but not without significant cost.”

A ferry between Kahului and Honolulu would need $5 million, or a 34 percent subsidy for operating costs in the first year, based on rough cost estimates and assuming no federal assistance.

As for a ferry between West and Central Maui, 58.5 percent of Maui residents said they were very likely to use a ferry between Lahaina and Kahului, while 57.4 percent were very likely to use a ferry between Lahaina and Maalaea. The study calculated that $19 would be the optimal fare, “relatively high for a daily commuting cost.”

“There are barriers to the West Maui-Central Maui intraisland service, too, as the small boat harbors at Lahaina and Maalaea cannot accommodate a vessel as large as the hypothetical model” of 98.4 feet, the study says.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is designing a new, 115-foot-long ferry pier at Lahaina Small Boat Harbor, which could handle an interisland or intercounty vessel.

“The establishment of the service can wait until the expected completion of the new Lahaina ferry pier in 2019, or in the meantime, the operation may consider a vessel similar to the Expeditions ferry that fits in the smaller harbors,” the study says.

The Expeditions ferry to Lanai, the only interisland ferry between major islands in Hawaii, is 55 feet in length.

Overall, expectations of the ferry didn’t always line up with reality. For example, people expect interisland ferries to offer multiple crossings a day, but there isn’t enough pier space to do so. People also want shorter crossing times than a ferry may be capable of.

“The market study explains several public perceptions of how a ferry benefits Hawaii’s interisland travelers — the expectation that travel by ferry will be cheaper than a flight, the ability for large groups to travel together, the options for athletes to travel with their gear and equipment at a reduced cost — but the perception does not translate to demand,” the study says.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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