HONOLULU – The operator of the first passenger-vehicle ferry between major Hawaiian islands will stop its service after a court ruled it unfairly was allowed to bypass an environmental review.
Hawaii Superferry said Monday night it has decided "to cease operations for the present" in the wake of the state Supreme Court ruling.
The Superferry, a car and passenger service that links Oahu and Maui and hopes to expand, has been under fire from critics who argue the use of 350-foot catamaran could harm whales and damage the area's fragile ecology.
"While the appeal is not yet final because a judgment on appeal has not been entered, we want to proceed prudently and have decided to cease operations for the present," the company said in a statement. "We will make one additional round trip to get vehicles back to their homes this Thursday."
In light of the high court's decision, the Superferry must stop operation until the study is completed, said Isaac Hall, an attorney representing three groups that challenged the Superferry in court.
The state had exempted the Superferry from environmental review in 2005. But the Supreme Court later ruled that an environmental study was needed before the vessel could operate.
That prompted the Legislature to convene in special session in 2007 and pass a law enabling the Superferry to run while an environmental assessment was drafted. But the court on Monday argued that the law was unconstitutional, and sent the case back to Circuit Court.
Attorney General Mark Bennett said the administration is not considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because there is no federal issue, but the court could be asked to reconsider its decision.
Before the company's announcement, Gov. Linda Lingle had said it would be "devastating for the Superferry to stop its operation."
The 350-foot Alakai, which can seat up to 800 passengers and carry about 200 vehicles, has operated since December 2007. The ferry was built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.
Lingle expressed no regret with her administration's original decision to grant the Superferry an exemption from state environmental review laws.
"We know from the beginning we were correct and accurate," she said. "We've been able to provide a great service the people of Maui and Oahu, one that they've come to appreciate and in some cases, to depend upon."
State Sen. Kalani English, D-East Maui-Lanai-Molokai, who voted against the exemption, said he warned at the time it was unconstitutional special legislation. English said the company could have avoided the problem if it had agreed to an environmental impact statement from the start.
"If they did that, none of this would have happened," he told The Honolulu Advertiser.
Earlier this month, the state House quashed a bill that would have allowed Superferry more time for completion of the environmental review. So the assessment must be completed by late June.
It's unclear if a new environmental review is needed or if the state and Superferry can use work that has already been done.