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Is TheBoat a good idea?

Photo: Wayne Yoshioka
director, Department of Transportation services
city & county of honolulu

To understand TheBoat project, one must understand the big picture. Recent articles analyze TheBoat in an isolated manner, neglecting the fact that transportation works as a system with the various pieces contributing to overall mobility. The Oahu Regional Transportation Plan 2030 identifies projects that together constitute a multimodal approach to transportation mobility on Oahu. Its projects include a fixed guideway transit project, an expanded, integrated bus system and the intraisland commuter ferry.

Ferries have been tried on Oahu before. The difference with TheBoat is the provision of shuttle buses that provide a link from west Oahu to the ferry terminal in Kalaeloa. Downtown, shuttle buses provide links to the University of Hawaii and Waikiki. The shuttles are timed so the wait when arriving at the pier is less than 10 minutes.

TheBoat is fully integrated with TheBus.  Fares are the same, transfers are free, and bus passes work on both. On a system-wide basis, the cost per passenger for TheBus system alone is $2.18.  When TheBoat is added, it is $2.25 per passenger.  Another way to look at it is to consider the fare-box return ratio. This is the proportion of the total operating expense covered by fares. The fare-box return ratio with TheBus system alone is 28.15 percent. With TheBoat added, the ratio is 27.26 percent. Both are within the city policy range of 27 percent to 31 percent. 

TheBoat’s function is to provide an independent route that is relatively unaffected by congestion. TheBoat provides consistent travel times between west Oahu and downtown. Other amenities are the ability to work, access the Internet, have breakfast and do other things that are not practical in an automobile or on a bus. TheBoat also provides relief to our already full buses on the congested H-1 Freeway.

Photo: Jamie Story president,
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

 TheBoat has proven to be an unwise use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. In August, one year after its launch, TheBoat carried approximately 6,700 passengers one way between Kalaeloa pier and Aloha Tower at a cost of $417,000. That’s $62 per trip. With ticket prices of just $2, passengers are paying only 3 percent of the cost while taxpayers float the rest.

TheBoat makes TheBus look like a model of efficiency. Including capital and operating costs, the equivalent bus trip costs $12.32, or 80 percent less than TheBoat. While a Star-Bulletin trial demonstrated that a trip from Makakilo to downtown takes one hour and 43 minutes on TheBoat, the same commute by bus takes 37 minutes. Cars provide even greater efficiency, with a lower one-way cost ($11.70, including parking) and shorter commute time (28 minutes) than either TheBus or TheBoat. Cars also provide greater flexibility for commuters with unusual or unpredictable schedules.

What makes TheBoat so inefficient? High fixed costs and extremely low ridership — only 8.6 percent of capacity in August 2008 — combine for high per-passenger rates. Perhaps most frustrating is that city officials should have known better. In 1999 to 2000, the state attempted a nearly identical project. The Wiki Wiki Ferry carried commuters from Iroquois Point to Aloha Tower at a cost of $3 million. With four round-trips each day and only 35,000 riders, the Wiki Wiki Ferry was shut down after one year. Seven years later, city officials had little reason to expect TheBoat to exhibit better results.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he hoped that TheBoat would remove 400 to 450 cars from the road each day. Unfortunately, these results never materialized. Existing TheBoat riders have likely come from the less expensive TheBus. Regarding TheBoat: We didn’t need it. We can’t afford it. Let’s not maintain it!

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Hawaii Business,November