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Vulnerable Docks, Hawaii’s Lifeline

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Anybody who is a baby boomer or older who grew up in Hawaii can relate horror stories of empty supermarket shelves as shoppers hoarded everything from rice to toilet paper because Hawaii’s lifeline had been cut off by dock strikes.

But a whole couple of generations since the mid-1970’s have no idea what it was like to be cut off from the mainland from where most of Hawaii’s food and other essentials arrive. After the last major dock tie-up, one bank economist wrote a telling brochure on what it means to have Hawaii’s docks closed down, calling Hawaii “the most vulnerable state in the nation.” That piece was an attempt to get federal legislation adopted to prevent the dock workers from shutting down the state and stranding the population of Hawaii.

While Congress did not pass any legislation to prevent the docks from being closed down, it appears that there has been relative peace on the waterfront. However, that does not mean residents should remain complacent about Hawaii’s shipping lifeline as its continued viability is crucial not only to consumers in Hawaii but also to the state’s economy. Without a way to get goods in or out of Hawaii, economic activity would come to a standstill.

So why the concern now with relatively few labor disruptions in recent years? Apparently with the redevelopment of Kakaako in Honolulu, the land adjacent to Honolulu Harbor has caught the eye of developers who see this area of Honolulu as the next golden goose. Read: “Money is to be made” in this redevelopment. The development encroaches on Piers 1 and 2 of Honolulu Harbor.

The problem is that the harbor space in Honolulu, as well as on the Neighbor Islands, is very limited. In fact, recent reports noted that there are times in Honolulu Harbor when passenger ships compete with freighters and that freighters have had to pull out of docking areas so passenger ships could unload their human cargo. Even the storage areas around the docks are finite making the loading and unloading of cargo inefficient, if not down right dangerous.

Even more inane was that the last administration decided that the fish auction was unsightly for the newly gentrified Kakaako and moved it into the middle of Honolulu harbor next to the old Kapalama Military reservation. What that did was basically take up precious docking and storage space in the middle of busy Honolulu harbor.

Inasmuch as the new fish auction house conceptually was designed as a tourist attraction, leaving it on the edge of Kewalo Basin would have been much more effective and would have kept the auction away from the commercial areas of Honolulu Harbor. Inasmuch as the harbor system is not only our supply lifeline but our economic lifeline too, state leaders need to recognize that the harbor system is important to Hawaii’s future. If goods cannot be efficiently moved in and out of the state, the inefficiency will sour our economic future. That inefficiency will only contribute to the high cost of living in Hawaii and will shave any kind of competitive edge Hawaii made goods have on the world market place.

The same goes for the Neighbor Island ports. As Hawaii’s economy grows, the importance of maintaining its shipping lifeline becomes more critical. Maintaining Hawaii’s harbors as working ports, as opposed to developing them for glitzy hotels or office buildings, should be of concern to all taxpayers and their elected officials.

To some degree the message seems to be getting through to lawmakers who just this past session passed an albeit flawed measure to transfer Piers 1 and 2 in Honolulu back to the department of transportation. While that measure was vetoed because it contained an incorrect description of the area to be transferred, it was a step in the right direction in restoring Hawaii’s harbors as working harbors.

Similarly on the Neighbor Islands, the advent of passenger ship arrivals will also compete with the working cargo ships that bring goods to the Neighbor Islands. While those passenger ship arrivals help to boost the economy of each Neighbor Island, those arrivals and use of the docks must be balanced with the needs of each island’s community. 

More importantly, policymakers and administrators need to recognize the importance of our state’s harbor system and how our state’s economy is intertwined with its docks.

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