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County to Consider Public Ferry

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

A feasibility study to consider a Maui County-owned ferry system is slated to be completed in the next year. Lanai Councilmember Gabe Johnson, who has spearheaded the initiative, said $300,000 has been budgeted for the study for this fiscal year that will determine options for how ferries between Molokai, Maui and Lanai could be run, how much it would cost, where the funding might come from, and other variables. 

He pointed to how Maui’s public bus transportation is operated, with the buses owned by Maui County and operated under a contract with Roberts Hawaii. He said a similar arrangement for the ferry service might be an option. 

“We wanted to see if that would work for a ferry system,” Johnson said of the bus system. “We also look at other comparable communities on how they run their ferry systems. And the other thing we’d like to learn is, what are the funding mechanisms? Do we have to all do it through county funds? Are there federal [or state] funds available for this? So the feasibility study says, first off, is it doable? Because when we talk about ferries, a lot of people talk about the Super Ferry. This is very different. So we have to answer all the questions that people would have. And we would do that through a feasibility study.”

Molokai’s ferry closed operations in 2016, citing falling ridership and financial losses. A ferry service between Lahaina and Lanai continues to run, but Expeditions, the company that operates it, is up for sale. 

“The ferry is our lifeline to other services that aren’t provided on the island of Lanai, and Molokai would appreciate this,” said Johnson. “We don’t go to Oahu or Maui for snorkel, cruise or whale watching. We’re going there for doctor’s appointments, dentist appointments. Services that we can’t get on our smaller, more rural islands.”

He described the ferry as a “very important piece of the puzzle of living in a healthy community.”

He said the county could consider purchasing the existing Lanai ferry operation, while likely purchasing a new ferry to serve Molokai. He suggested a double hulled vessel that would make the rough ride across the channel between Molokai and Maui a little smoother and more comfortable. 

Johnson said he’s “a big proponent of public transportation.”

“I often say, ‘Let’s put public transportation in the hands of the public.’ Let’s say another company buys this [Lanai ferry], their interest is return on investment, whereas if the county owns the ferry, its interest is service — we want to provide the service,” he said. “Because that’s the biggest difference between private and public ownership [is] private ownership would be profit driven, whereas if the county owns it, if the governments own it, it will be service driven.”

Johnson said Lanai’s Expeditions ferry has been a great service to the community, and has offered $10 fares for kupuna and keiki without raising rates for years. But if another company buys it, that would likely increase. 

With Mokulele being Molokai’s only air carrier, the community has been calling for transportation options. Many have turned to private boats to get to Maui, where they are more likely to be able to catch a flight to Oahu. A county-owned ferry system could offer a valuable option, and Molokai councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez has expressed her support of the proposal. 

“There is no such thing as a publicly run airline service, but there are plenty of publicly run ferries,” said Johnson. “And I think this is a perfect county for it. We’re a multiple island county, we have multiple small boat harbors that are owned by the state, they’re not private harbors, so let’s have a public transportation in public harbors. It just makes sense to me, you know? So that’s why I’ve been championing this as much as I can, trying to get people’s support of it.”

Johnson says he’s hoping the feasibility study can be completed in nine months. 


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