Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

January 31, 2005

We’re still in denial: This ferry won’t float

Once more legislators[1] 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[2]. In addition, the Task Force produced its own report,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] I wrote at the time (“Downtown ferry idea is all wet,” 11/29/99)[6] 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.[7]

And while the price was cheap, the cost to us taxpayers was high.[8] 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 $2.9 million.

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.[9] 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,[10] 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 decided on.)

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.[11] And if taxpayers do not care about how their tax money is spent, why should elected officials?

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater\


[1] 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 mobility.

·         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 added)

Advertiser focus on House races, August 16, 2004.

June 2004 Letter to the Editor from Marilyn Lee, Hawaii House Majority Floor Leader.

[2] 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, 1989.

A Comparison of Consumers Interest in Using Different Modes of Transportation. TRB 910651, Dr. Kevin Flannelly and Malcolm McLeod, 1991.

[9] 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 years earlier.

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.

[10] Ferries as costly, environmental problems. Read this from the Bay Area Initiative.

[11] I 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 cared.