Hawaii Superferry yesterday announced it would start laying off its 236 employees after tomorrow’s final sailing, as it appears more likely the company will leave the state for good.
The $250 million enterprise decided to cease operations after the Hawai’i Supreme Court invalidated a 2007 law that allowed the interisland ferry to operate before the completion of related environmental studies.
The ferry plans to make one more roundtrip between Honolulu and Maui tomorrow to return passengers and vehicles stranded by the shutdown to their home ports. Superferry has offered to refund tickets purchased for future sailings.
Company officials yesterday would not comment on their next step. Options include:
going out of business;
sitting idle while the state sorts out legal issues stemming from the four-year court battle that led to Monday’s ruling; or
leasing the Alakai, its 350-foot, high-speed catamaran, for service outside Hawai’i while the state Department of Transportation completes a legally required environmental impact statement on $40 million in ferry-related harbor improvements.
“I don’t know if the Superferry has decided what their future plans are,” Attorney General Mark Bennett said yesterday. “They’ve said they will be stopping for the foreseeable future.”
The state is reviewing Monday’s ruling to decide whether to file a motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider, he said.
“It’s a long decision. We want to carefully study it,” Bennett said. “We want to make sure our motion is on appropriate grounds. We have one shot to do this. … If we don’t succeed, then we have to accept it and move on.”
The Legislature apparently is not considering any action to rescue Superferry, as it did in late 2007 when it passed a law known as Act 2 that allowed the company to operate while environmental studies were being done.
That action was taken after ferry operations were halted in the wake of an August 2007 Hawai’i Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to conduct an environmental review of its ferry-related harbor projects and the impact of ferry service on humpback whales, the spread of invasive species and other concerns.
State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha) said yesterday that, given the latest court decision that Act 2 is unconstitutional because it was designed to benefit a specific company, “I’m not sure there is anything the Legislature can do or is willing to do (to help the Superferry).”
Hanabusa said the Senate also is not interested in revamping the state’s environmental review law, known as Chapter 343, to ease the rules. Although the Legislature last year allocated money for a Legislative Reference Bureau study of the law, “we are not going to do anything to it piecemeal to help Hawaii Superferry. That’s not going to happen.”
state to aid workers
In its layoff announcement yesterday, the company said it is working with the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ rapid response team to assist its employees. Superferry employs 161 full- and part-time workers and 75 contract employees who work for Hornblower Marine Services.
Maui port supervisor Shayna Asuncion, 26, has been with the company since its first days, starting as a vehicle screener in July 2007. She said she is “very disappointed and very emotional” about the company’s shutdown.
“I love what I do. I put my heart into it and it’s a big letdown that something such as this takes it away. It’s sad,” she said. “I’m not blaming anyone. It is what it is, but for each and every one of the employees it’s very hard.”
Asuncion, a Wailuku resident, said she hasn’t really begun to think about future employment but knows she will be entering a tight job market.
Port utility operator Stephen Torres, 56, also is uncertain about his future.
“They’re a real good company. They took care of us,” said Torres, who lives in Kula. “I think Superferry was the best thing since sliced bread and now it seems like the state is going back to the dark ages.
“Life goes on, but it hurts.”
Love’s Bakery was one of Superferry’s major commercial customers, shipping 25,000 pounds of fresh-baked bread and cakes to Maui on two trucks five days a week. Love’s president Mike Walters said the bakery will have to rely on more costly air freight, as it does to send its products to Kaua’i and the Big Island.
“Financially, we took a big hit (with the ferry shutdown). There was an investment to go with the program and it paid off in substantial savings,” Walters said. “It’s a shame. We really developed a very strong personal relationship with Superferry. It was a win-win situation.”
He said there will be no disruption in bread supplies on Maui and no increase in prices, even though Love’s costs will increase.
fewer maui concerts
The effects of the ferry shutdown will even reach into Maui’s entertainment scene, according to John Fisher, owner of The Delivery People.
The freight forwarding and delivery company, started on Maui but now based on O’ahu, was using Superferry to ship instruments and other gear for bands performing on the Valley Isle. Fisher said the company had contracts with Diana Krall, Journey, Alice Cooper, Sheryl Crow and others.
“Superferry was a lot more cost-effective, and because of that, Maui got those concerts. Now we’ll have to switch to air freight for those shipments and the prices will be four to five times higher. Some concerts won’t be as viable on Maui,” he said.
For package delivery, Superferry allowed The Delivery People to “drive” its trucks between Maui and Honolulu and provide door-to-door service without additional handling by freight companies.
“It was another option, especially for price-sensitive people and time-sensitive people,” he said.
Maui farmers liked the ferry because their refrigerated trucks could plug into the Alakai’s electrical system. “No other carrier has that kind of temperature control. It’s a food safety issue,” said Warren Watanabe, head of the Maui County Farm Bureau.
He said small farmers used the ferry to sell their flowers, produce and other crops at farmers markets and fairs on O’ahu.
Ferry’s rocky start
Superferry began regular service between Honolulu and Maui in December 2007 after a rocky start marred by protests, rough winter seas and repeated trouble with its mooring system at Kahului Harbor. Its vessel can carry 836 passengers and 230 cars.
From April, when the ferry had it first full month of operation, through the end of 2008, Superferry carried 207,000 passengers and 60,000 vehicles, the company said.
In monthly reports filed with the DOT, the Superferry reported carrying 18,890 passengers, 5,100 autos and 621 commercial vehicles in November. During December, 16,590 passengers, 4,868 autos and 586 commercial vehicles rode the ferry.
In January, 13,312 passengers, 3,718 autos and 622 commercial vehicles traveled aboard the Alakai.
Figures for February were not available, but Superferry officials had projected lower ridership during the winter months.
A second $95 million high-speed ferry was to have started service to Kawaihae early this year, but the company announced in September that it would delay the start of Big Island operations by a year in response to slower demand and the economic recession.