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The End of the Molokai Ferry? Operator Seeks to Shut Down Service

Eileen Chao
Eileen Chao

A ferry service on Moloka‘i is struggling to stay afloat and may have to shut down. The company that has been operating the service for nearly 30 years says low ridership and competing air fares are to blame. 

And as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, the shutdown may become permanent. 

The company Sea Link has been running the Moloka‘i Maui ferry since 1987. They recently filed a request to shut down services with the state’s Public Utilities Commission. The business reported a net operating loss of more than $523,000 dollars in 2015 alone. General Manager and Captain David Jung estimates by the end of 2016, the company will have lost more than one million dollars over the past four years.

“As time has gone on, it’s gotten tougher and tougher,” said Jung. “Without any help from the state or the county, it’s just not viable anymore.”

The ferry was originally created to connect Moloka‘i workers to jobs in Lahaina, Maui. At the time, the company received a state subsidy of $30,000 a month.

“People would go to Maui, they’d work, bring home their paycheck and spend it on Moloka‘i,” Jung explained. “That’s a very positive thing for any community, to feel its self-worth.”

But over time low air fares have cut into the ferry’s ridership, with some flights going for as little as $36 one way. In a report filed to the PUC, ridership rates have fallen from  1691 total passengers in January to 859 in July. Moloka‘i resident Julie Lopez says while the ferry has been good for the island, it might make more sense financially for Jung’s company to shut it down.

“Economically, he can’t survive,” said Lopez. “That’s just business. If you can’t survive, you need to shut down.”

The closure of the ferry would be a serious setback for Moloka‘i High School’s football team. They’re the only sports team that still relies on the ferry to get to games on Maui. Athletic Director Lee DeRouin says traveling on small nine-seat planes can be a challenge when bringing football gear and equipment.

“That’s where the greatest impact will be felt,” said DeRouin. “The amount of equipment they bring over, the size of their team, supporters, parents, coaches, even cheerleaders go on the trip. It’s a lot of people.”

Some worry the loss of the ferry could also impact tourism to the Friendly Isle. John K. McBride runs a series of land tours that take visitors from Lahaina to Moloka‘i for the day by ferry.

“We give them about an hour to go shopping in town. They go through the stores and support the economy there,” said McBride. “The ferry does provide a good service to the island. I think the state should step up and see if they can subsidize the ferry for the people.”

The deadline to submit comments to the PUC about the proposed shutdown is today. If the PUC approves the request, the company plans to discontinue ferry operations within days of the announcement.

The PUC is requesting written comments on Sea Link’s request, with a deadline of Sept. 27. Written comments can be mailed to the PUC at 465 South King Street, Room 103, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96813, or sent by email to puc.comments@hawaii.gov. All written comments should reference Docket No. 2016-0214, and include the commenter’s name and the entity or organization the commenter represents.

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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