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Hawaii transportation policy takes new step

A giant catamaran launched a new Hawaii transportation policy Sunday under the cloud of a state Supreme Court challenge.

More than 500 passengers and crew with 150 cars sailed with the new interisland ferry before dawn in a stepped-up launch following a court ruling against the state's first interisland ferry service, originally scheduled to start two days later.

With full-page Honolulu newspaper ads and a media blitz, Superferry sold out its first voyage in 30 minutes Saturday, offering $5 one-way fares for passengers and the same for cars. The launch had been set for Tuesday with fares 10 times that much.

Before Sunday, the only way residents or tourists could get from island to island was to choose among three major local airlines which are in an ongoing fare war. Taking the family car was not an option.

The initial check-in went surprisingly smoothly for the three-hour maiden voyage to Maui, taking only about 15 minutes to load the cars. The line for passengers was also quick. To cheers and gasps, the ship pulled away from the dock sideways, launching 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

Inside the spacious, four-story vessel, which has the trappings of a cruise ship, passengers browsed the gift shop, took pictures, played cards and ordered breakfast watching live NFL Sunday football games on numerous high-definition TV screens as the ferry sailed past Aloha Tower.

"It's beautiful," exclaimed Stephen Imamoto of Honolulu, who was traveling with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. "I don't like to fly... You can't beat the price."

Imamoto said he wanted to try the first voyage to see if he gets seasick. Choppy waters and strong winds between the islands have scuttled all earlier attempts at interisland ferry services with much smaller ships.

More than 19,000 passengers have signed up to take advantage of the $5 through Sept. 5. After that, round trips to Maui or Kauai, with taxes and a fuel surcharge, will cost more than $240 for one passenger and a car- if the courts don't stop the $95 million ferry's daily runs to both islands.

The Hawaii Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that the state should have required an environmental review before the Superferry started service. Environmentalists worry that the four-story double-hulled vessel could collide with humpback whales, spread invasive species and create long traffic delays.

Their attorney, Isaac Hall, said he will seek an injunction Monday from a Maui judge to prevent the Superferry from doing business until environmental studies are completed. Environmental reviews are typically required of projects that use state money and land, and they can take months or even years to complete.

Environmentalists said the Superferry was acting in bad faith by launching early and trying to build public support with steep discounts.

"This is really a slap in the face to the residents of Hawaii and to the state Supreme Court," said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter.

Superferry President and CEO John Garibaldi defended the early launch on Friday.

"Demand for these tours and rides has been phenomenal," he said. "We want everyone in Hawaii to have an opportunity to experience Hawaii Superferry."

A second ferry is being built in Mobile, Alabama, and is scheduled to serve the Big Island starting in 2009.

Superferry supporters said it was being treated unfairly because other harbor users like cruise ships did not have to go through extensive environmental reviews.

"These standards should apply to all players, not just the newest, the smallest and the most popular," said David Cole, the chairman, president and CEO of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., which invested $1 million in the ferry.