Amid protests and legal snags, Hawaii Superferry suspends service

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Highly charged environmental protests and legal challenges forced Hawaii Superferry last week to indefinitely suspend its operations, just two days after the interisland transportation service launched.

The controversy over the ferry service also spurred Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle to call for Hawaii Superferry to temporarily cease operations.

According to published reports, the Maui Circuit Court denied Hawaii Superferry's motion to lift a temporary restraining order, filed by environmentalists prohibiting the ferry's operations to Maui's Kahului Harbor. Another hearing is slated for Sept. 6, the day the temporary restraining order expires. Nevertheless, the company indicated that it was determined to eventually resume service.

"Hawaii Superferry believes it has a very viable operation," said a company spokesperson.

Hawaii Superferry began accepting reservations on June 29, offering travelers a special $5 introductory fare to try the service between Oahu and Maui and Oahu and Kauai. "Sales were steady and brisk," the spokesperson said.

The ferry's first day of operations began at 6 a.m. on Aug. 26. The following day, as the 350-foot ferry approached Kauai's Nawiliwili Harbor, it was met by dozens of surfboard-riding protestors who tried to form a blockade preventing the vessel from entering into the harbor, according to published reports. Other protestors gathered at the pier where the vessel was to dock.

Anticipating the protest, the ferry was escorted to the harbor by U.S. Coast Guard zodiacs. The ferry was eventually able to dock, but only after significant delays and intervention from local law enforcement.

On Aug. 28, Hawaii Superferry officials held a press conference and said service to Kauai would be suspended indefinitely after the Coast Guard informed them that, in light of the environmental protests, it could not assure safe passage into the harbor.

"Our top priority is to operate a safe and reliable ferry system for Hawaii's residents," said John Garibaldi, Hawaii Superferry's president and CEO. "When that can be accomplished, we will resume service."

Earlier in the month, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the state government should have conducted an environmental-impact study before permitting Hawaii Superferry to operate, overturning a lower court's decision.

Environmental groups contend that an environmental study is needed to determine whether the ferry will be harmful to whales and other sea life.

The Hawaii Superferry spokesperson countered that the company had complied with the state's environment regulations.

"For more than three years, Hawaii Superferry has met all the requirements of the state Department of Transportation, including provisions pertaining to environmental review," the spokesperson said.

"The same careful attention to regulatory compliance and overall responsiveness has been applied to the protection of whales, safety and security issues, community and harbor users, prevention of the spread of invasive species and traffic management."

Meanwhile, with its operations suspended, Hawaii Superferry teamed with Aloha Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines to offer special fares to passengers that had booked Superferry tickets.

Hawaii Superferry's first vessel, the Alakai, is capable of carrying 866 passengers, 282 cars and 28 trucks. The company intends to launch a sister ship in 2009.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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