5.5 Are there auto ferries between the islands?
Not right now. The Hawaii Superferry provided auto and passenger transport between Oahu, Maui, and (very briefly) Kauai from August 2007 to March 2009, with plans to resume service to Kauai and add service to the Big Island. As discussed below, all Superferry service has been indefinitely suspended, and probably will not resume (if at all) until 2010.
Pre-Superferry, and even when the Superferry was operating, local residents flew a lot between the islands on local airlines providing jet service between the four most-populated islands, and smaller planes also serving the other inhabited islands except privately-owned Niihau. They rented cars as needed when visiting other islands, generally at "kama'aina" discount rates restricted to Hawaii residents. On the rare occasions residents moved their cars between islands (such as for an inter-island change of residence), the cars usually went by barge or freighter.
In the mid-1970s, SeaFlite operated private passenger-only hydrofoil ferries between most of the populated islands (all but Lanai and Niihau). However, I understand that they never were very popular, largely because the ferry boats were prone to breakdowns, but also because it took several hours to travel between islands, through deep, unprotected waters that are rougher than the sheltered waters mainly used by the extensive auto ferry systems of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Not helping to smooth the ride through the rough waters was the relatively small size of the SeaFlite hydrofoils, which unlike typical auto ferries could and did use small-boat harbors (Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, Maalaea on Maui) rather than be limited to the larger deep-draft commercial harbors.
By the way, Hawaii DOT assigned Federal Aid Primary route numbers 6-10 to a network of ferry routes. These apparently were intended for a state-run auto ferry system the state had been noodling over throughout the 1960s and 1970s, not the short-lived SeaFlite passenger ferry system of the mid-1970s, which didn't always follow the FAP ferry routes. Here are the assigned FAP ferry routes, as of 1976 (from Hawaii DOT's Highway Systems Maps that year for all the islands), compared to the corresponding SeaFlite routes (per 1977 Hawaii Visitor Bureau maps), and the routes that the Hawaii Superferry served or planned to serve:
|FAP||FAP route||SeaFlite route||Superferry route|
|6||Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai)||Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai)||Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai)|
|7||Honolulu - Kaunakakai (Molokai)||Honolulu - Kaunakakai (Molokai)||--|
|8||Kaunakakai (Molokai) - Kahului (Maui)||Honolulu - Maalaea (Maui)||Honolulu - Kahului (Maui)|
|9||Kahului (Maui) - Hilo (Big Island)||--||--|
|10||Kahului (Maui) - Kawaihae (Big Island)||Maalaea (Maui) - Kailua-Kona (Big Island)||Honolulu - Kawaihae (Big Island)|
There are private ferries between Lahaina in west Maui, and Lanai and (sometimes) Molokai. Hawaii DOT has in recent years tested a hydrofoil ferry from various points in west Oahu to Honolulu, to help relieve congestion on Interstate H-1. But these also are all passenger-only ferries.
Heightened post-9/11 airport security, which made interisland air travel less convenient than before, and also the planned merger (since called off) of two major interisland airlines, spurred renewed interest in inter-island ferries. A private company, Hawaii Superferry, worked with the state to develop an interisland ferry system that would carry cars and trucks as well as passengers. In January 2004, it contracted for construction of two new high-speed catamaran ferries. Construction of the first one was completed in January 2007, and it arrived in the islands in summer 2007.
The Superferry attempted to begin regular operation from Oahu to Maui, and to Kauai, in late August 2007, and indeed made two sailings to Maui and one to Kauai. But service was put on hold thereafter due to a variety of legal and other obstacles, including a last-minute Hawaii Supreme Court decision invalidating an exemption from environmental review the Superferry had relied on, the resulting injunction blocking the Superferry's continued use of Maui's Kahului harbor, and vociferous waterborne protestors blocking the Superferry's attempted second trip to Kauai's Nawiliwili harbor. The Hawaii legislature then passed a law designed to clear the legal obstacles to a restart of Superferry service.
Hawaii Superferry restarted once-daily service between Oahu and Maui on December 13, 2007, with a scheduled running time of 3 hours 45 minutes from Oahu to Maui, and 3 hours on the return trip. The company also began in May 2008 to offer a second voyage in each direction, four afternoons each week in peak season and at least once a week in the winter. Twice-daily service to and from Maui had been originally planned to begin in 2009 with the arrival of the second ferry vessel, but Hawaii Superferry decided to accelerate those plans, perhaps expecting that once-a-day service to and from Kauai would generate less business than adding an extra daily trip on the Maui route, which allowed commercial customers to take their trucks to Maui in the morning and return that evening, without the overnight stay required by the old schedule. Due to economic conditions, the Superferry held off until at least 2010 using the second ferry vessel for Hawaii service, which would have added service to the Big Island (once improvements and earthquake damage repairs were completed to the Big Island's Kawaihae harbor), and possibly also resumed service to Kauai. As far as I know, extension of Superferry service to Lanai and Molokai islands was never seriously considered, due to their small populations and limited harbor facilities.
The Superferry was used mainly by local residents and businesses taking their own vehicles, as well as local and tourist foot passengers. Most tourists still traveled by air among the islands, changing rental cars as needed. Due to a quirk in state law, the Superferry cannot transport rental cars (or other vehicles) without written permission of the registered vehicle owner. However, some rental car companies allowed their vehicles on the Superferry, with some even allowing one-way rentals. I took a National rental car on the Superferry round-trip between Maui and Oahu in January 2009, choosing a round-trip rather than a one-way rental since the one-way surcharge for the companies allowing one-way rentals was at least $400, much more than the one-way return trip fare for vehicle and passenger.
Superferry service was abruptly and indefinitely suspended in March 2009, a few days after the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the 2007 law allowing the Superferry to resume operations before completing state environmental reviews. At that point, the Superferry was at least a year away from completing those reviews, and couldn't afford to have its existing ferry vessel (plus the almost-completed second vessel it had on order) idle that long. State legislative leaders decided against pursuing a new law to help the Superferry continue operating, since a new law focused on helping the Superferry would likely have the same constitutional problem the state supreme court found with the old law, and there was no appetite for broader revisions to state environmental laws that could pass constitutional muster but might have unwanted effects on non-Superferry projects.
The Superferry will try to find alternate uses for its two ferry vessels, probably in non-Hawaiian markets. It is leaving the door open to returning to Hawaii if and when all the environmental issues are resolved in its favor. However, it is uncertain whether or when that will happen (unlikely before 2010), or that the Superferry will return to Hawaii even if can legally do so.