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Molokai Ferry Seeks to Run ‘As Needed’

With competition increasing, the Molokai ferry wants to scale back further than originally planned. On May 13, Sea Link of Hawaii, Inc. withdrew its petition to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to suspend one daily route between Molokai and Maui. The company instead plans to petition the PUC to require a minimum number of passengers to make a trip between the two islands.

“The concept we’re working on now is being what’s called a common carrier versus a scheduled carrier,” said company President Dave Jung. “A scheduled carrier has to run if you’ve got one passenger. … We want to be a common carrier where we have a minimum.”

Jung said they made the decision because he felt the original petition “was gonna drag out.” In a letter to the PUC on April 14, the Division of Consumer Advocacy recommended a thorough investigation that included public hearings, which Jung felt the company didn’t have time for. The situation gained more urgency for Jung when “a new player jumped into the market” in the form of Makani Kai Air.

The airline company recently announced that they will begin flights to Maui starting June 1 and is offering $39, one-way tickets for a limited time. A one-way ticket for a two-hour ferry ride costs around $62.

“We only average 100 people a day on four voyages. That’s an average of 25 each way,” explained Jung. “When Makani Kai puts in six round trips [to Maui] … there’s our capacity right there.”

Although Makani Kai’s promotional Maui discount is temporary, Jung said he feels the ferry will get stuck in price wars between airlines in the future.

Sea Link hopes to submit its new petition by the end of this week, according to Jung. Riders would have to make reservations beforehand, though the minimum number of passengers required has yet to be determined. No plans for rate increases are in the works. Jung added they plan to pass out surveys to Molokai and Maui residents for more input on the ferry.

“By staying alive, by staying in business, it will give us the ability to handle peak travel and also handle school teams and sports events,” said Jung. “We wanna be able to … at least break even.”

Temporary Solution

Meanwhile, the Maui County Council is considering a bill from Mayor Alan Arakawa that would appropriate $105,000 to the ferry. It will need to pass two readings at the full council’s May 26 and June 5 meetings before being signed into approval by the mayor, said Council Communications Director Kit Zulueta.

“After interviewing Mr. Jung, we determined from him that his operating losses are at the tune of about $35,000 per month,” said Teena Rasmussen, Maui County Economic Development Officer. “This [proposed funding] would give him three months of operating funds for him to be able to find a way forward basically.”

The subsidy will come from the Economic Development Revolving Fund and will need approval before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Jung said the subsidy would give the company temporary footing while it works on a more permanent solution with the PUC.

“I gave my word to the mayor that we would run through April, May and June, and if we could cut our expenses a little bit or the numbers went up or down we could adjust it,” said Jung.

The company president added in a phone interview last Friday that he feels “a private entity doesn’t have the money” to fund a public transportation vessel and felt a better long-term solution would be through a government agency. County councilmembers said they are willing to give the ferry a shot at survival but can’t provide long-term support.

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