We’re still in denial: This ferry won’t float
Once more legislators are
calling for a Barber’s Point to Downtown ferry. To demonstrate what little
thought they have given to this, let’s review the public record.
In 1987, I was Chair of the State Ridesharing Task Force
formed to look at alternatives to the single-occupant auto. The Hawaii Department
of Transportation assigned two of their researchers to us, Dr. Kevin Flannelly
and the late Malcolm McLeod, two of the brighter people I have met in this
field. Among many commuter options, we discussed ferries.
They showed us how few people ride those ferries that
parallel highways — almost no matter how bad the traffic. They subsequently
produced three studies in the period 1988-91 to back up their research. In
addition, the Task Force produced its own report, which
the state promptly buried; this was understandable since the report called for
private sector involvement.
Nevertheless, despite the research, the state subsidized a ferry
throughout most of 1992. It failed
because of insufficient riders. As I recall, the number of riders were almost
exactly what Flannelly and McLeod had predicted. It was not long after this
that both of them were fired from the DOT. (error correction, McLeod was
not fired, he retired). As the old saying goes, “It is very
dangerous to be right when the authorities are wrong.”
Then, to my astonishment, a ferry program was started again
in October 1999 on the same route. I wrote
at the time (“Downtown ferry idea is all wet,” 11/29/99) that it
hadn’t worked last time and, since they were not making any real changes to the
program, what made them think it would work this time?
As expected, it did not work; the same level of commuters
showed up as in 1992 with the usual number of tourists out to get an ocean view
of Oahu on the cheap.
And while the price was cheap, the cost to us taxpayers was high. The cost
is easy to figure out. Follow me: The ferry operated in from 1999-2000 for 14
months and carried, at most, 50 commuters each weekday. For this period it cost
Officials tell me that about 30% of the money was spent on
planning, promotion and other one-time costs. That leaves us with net spending
of $2 million on operations. The 50 commuters divided into the $2 million for
14 months equals expenses of $34,000 per commuter per year. Savor
that number for a minute; chartering helicopters would have been cheaper.
But irrespective of the cost, the ferry did not attract
commuters out of their cars — for either one of the projects.
Now proponents are once again pushing ferries. Is our
collective memory so short that we don’t care about the failure in 1992 or the
failure in 2000? Don’t they know that the evidence of insanity is doing the
same thing over and over again while expecting a different result?
All sorts of kooky “visions” are put forth for commuter
options and that is fine. But after the “vision” must come the drudgery of kicking
the tires on comparable systems, checking
their financial and operating data, and then producing realistic projections to
see if the reality matches the “vision” and then, if it does not, abandoning it.
(This is different from the City’s past 20-year practice, which has been to use
such research solely to shore up whatever our elected “visionaries” have already
There is nothing—absolutely nothing—that so demonstrates how
little thought really goes into transportation projects than these various
ferry episodes. For that matter, nothing demonstrates how little taxpayers seem
to care about their money being wasted. And if
taxpayers do not care about how their tax money is spent, why should elected
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater\
 Minutes of the Oahu
Metropolitan Planning Organization POLICY COMMITTEE on Friday, October 22,
2004. Excerpt with emphasis added:
The following are some of the visions given by the members:
Recognition that some form of congestion will always
exist on Oahu and there is a pressing need to
manage that congestion.
Transportation and land use moving hand-in-hand to
achieve the type of community we want.
The need for transportation infrastructures to be
integrated and reflect the sense of community while addressing access and
Rail was consistently mentioned as the backbone of Oahu’s transportation system that is needed to
accommodate and improve the quality of life for our people.
Major transportation infrastructure planning and
construction in tune with demand, rather than lagging demand.
Short-term transportation improvements to be implemented
now to optimize traffic flow.
To elaborate on these visions, specific projects were
identified. They included such items as the second access to Makakilo,
North-South Road, bridges to connect West Oahu with Ford Island, Nimitz
flyover, ferry, traffic light
synchronization, ramp metering, freeway service patrol, University of Hawaii
West Oahu, vehicle disincentives, bike facilities, and walkways. (emphasis
focus on House races, August 16, 2004.
Letter to the Editor from Marilyn Lee, Hawaii House Majority Floor Leader.
Flannelly, Kevin & Malcolm McLeod. The Hawaii Kai Survey on Transportation
Alternatives. Statewide Transportation Planning Office, Hawaii Dept. of Transportation. 1988.
Consumer Demand for Alternative
Transportation Services. TRB-89054, Dr. Kevin Flannelly and Malcolm McLeod,
A Comparison of Consumers Interest
in Using Different Modes of Transportation. TRB 910651, Dr. Kevin Flannelly
and Malcolm McLeod, 1991.
Most opinion has been to restart the ferry, or even expand it — see Joel Caribe (12/6/99). Or “plead for
continuation” from Diane C. Rosa (11/7). “Keep it running” says, Pat Monroe
(10/22/99). Expand it to Haleiwa says Gary Bignami (3/15/99). Actual letters
may be found using the search function on the Honolulu Advertiser website.. No
one mentions the enormous cost to the taxpayer.
Judging from letters to the editor,
nobody cared that this whole ferry exercise was a gross waste of money. Even
worse, that it was a repetition of waste since we had already tested it seven
The shame was that we could have spent
that $2 million on any sensible transportation project we wanted. For example,
we could have tested the private companies’ BusPlus proposal. They had
suggested offering suburban commuters a direct door-to-door ride downtown in an
air-conditioned coach with a guaranteed seat for a state/city subsidy of $720 a
year per commuter (no commuters, no subsidy). The $2.9 million would have
carried 4,000 commuters daily for a year. Compare that to 50 for the ferry.
had once thought that when TheBus losses reached a $100 million annually that
taxpayers would riot. That time came and went and nobody cared. Never mind that
only 30 years ago the bus system had been private and profitable. Now it
consumes $450 in taxes for every family of four annually.
I had also thought that taxpayers
would run amok once they heard that over the next ten years we taxpayers would
have to subsidize the City’s BRT plan by nearly $1 billion in initial capital
costs and an additional $1 billion plus for operating losses. Again, nobody