The Superferry foreshadowed the Honolulu Rail in that, to the detriment of both projects, government agencies attempted to shortcut environmental standards while rushing the work to completion. In 2007, mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell played a pivotal role in an exemption strategy that originated with Gov. Linda Lingle.
Sierra Club Hawaii, Maui Tomorrow and others had gone to court in 2005 demanding that the Superferry be required to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) like any other project. On appeal, The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs. In a follow-up injunction, the Circuit Court said, “Financial losses do not outweigh…environmental protection whenever the two clash, as they often do.”
At the time Caldwell represented an environmentally conscious district (Manoa) and had earned high marks from Sierra Club. On a hundred-point scale, he received a rating of 90 in the 2003-2004 session and 93 in the 2005-2006 session. By 2007, he had been elevated to Democratic majority leader under House Speaker Calvin Say.
In a move to exempt the Superferry from the court’s ruling, Caldwell emerged as a prominent spokesperson for shielding the ferry project from the State’s EIS law. In an emergency session called by the governor, the bill passed both houses.
Legislative opponents of the Superferry exemption responded with a proposal to legislate environmental standards if the ferry was to function without an EIS. These standards included putting an environmental monitor on board, imposing a speed limit on the Superferry’s passage through whale grounds, banning the movement of plants and fruits, and washing the bottom of roll-off vehicles as a check on the spread of unwanted plant species.
Supporters of this bill included such environmental stalwarts as Hermina Morita (with a Sierra Club rating of 100), Cynthia Thielen (85), Scott Saiki (86), Lyla Berg (86) and Gary Hooser (86). Say and Caldwell led the House majority in voting this bill down by a 37 to 9 margin. After passage of the exemption and defeat of the environmental standards, Caldwell said he wished the Lingle Administration had conducted an EIS study but now it was too late, to which he added, “It looks like it could be relatively smooth sailing from this point on out.”
Caldwell’s numerical rating by Sierra Club fell to 43, in the range of Speaker Say (40) and Pono Chong (33), both of whom would be opposed by the Sierra Club in the 2012 election.
Caldwell described the problems of the Superferry as a lesson learned. “Going forward, no more playing chicken with the law,” Caldwell wrote in a Star-Advertiser op-ed piece. “When it comes to development of our islands, the best policies are clear, open and up front, rather than vague, private and untimely.”
“The recent debate has brought us to an elevated stage of awareness,” he said. “It will sharpen the focus…on development, sustainability and quality of life. Let’s use the experience and knowledge we’ve gained for the better.”
Rep. Morita said, “Arrogance and speed were the downfall of the Titanic, and with the fast-speed ferry we’re exactly on that collision course.”
In March 2009, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the legislature’s exemption law of 2007 was unconstitutional, again shutting down the Superferry. Three months later the project declared bankruptcy.