Frequently Asked Questions logo PAGE 5

Bridges, ferries, and tunnels

Table of Contents for this page:
  5.1    What are the highest, and longest, road bridges in Hawaii?
  5.2   What's that new bridge to Ford Island in Pearl Harbor?
  5.3   Any plans to build bridges between the Hawaiian islands?
  5.4   Any plans to build a bridge between Hawaii and the rest of the United States? ("The Genie and the Road")
  5.5   Are there auto ferries between the islands?
  5.6   Where are the road tunnels in Hawaii?

5.1 What are the highest, and longest, road bridges in Hawaii?

The highest span in the state is the Nanue Bridge on Hawaii Belt Road (state route 19) north of Hilo, which is 208 feet above the stream it crosses.

The longest bridge is the Airport Viaduct carrying Interstate H-1 between exits 15 and 18, past Honolulu International Airport. It is 14890 feet (about 2.82 miles) long. Interstate H-3 also has some long viaducts through the Halawa Valley, and between the Tetsuo Harano and Hospital Rock tunnels.

5.2 What's that new bridge to Ford Island in Pearl Harbor?

That's the Admiral Clarey Bridge, completed in April 1998, to replace the ferries that used to connect Ford Island's battleship docks and officer housing to the rest of the Pearl Harbor naval base. It's 4700 feet long, with a retractable floating span in the middle that is the world's largest openable span (when fully retracted, the navigation channel is 650 feet wide), allowing the largest warships to move freely around Pearl Harbor when necessary.

The bridge and Ford Island are normally closed to the general public. However, they can take shuttle buses over the bridge, for tours of the decommissioned battleship U.S.S. Missouri docked at Ford Island. Part of the island may eventually be opened to commercial development, which may open the bridge to regular use by the general public.

Excellent views of the bridge are possible from the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and its visitor center on shore, as well as (from a distance) Aiea Heights Drive and Halawa Heights Drive above and to the northeast of Pearl Harbor. See Road Photos - Other Oahu South for several bridge photos I took from those vantage points and the U.S.S. Missouri tour shuttle over the bridge, as well as some additional information about the bridge.

5.3 Any plans to build bridges between the Hawaiian islands?

No. The waters between the major islands are too wide and deep (for example, the channel between Oahu and Kauai is about 65 miles wide and over 10,000 feet deep; and between Maui and the Big Island, about 30 miles wide and 7,000 feet deep). Even the shallower channels between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai are several hundred feet deep. Also, since there are only a few thousand people on Lanai and Molokai, there's not much point to the long bridges needed to connect either island to Maui.

5.4 Any plans to build a bridge between Hawaii and the rest of the United States?

Only in jest, such as the infamous politically-incorrect "The Genie and the Road" joke:

A man was walking along the beach and found a bottle. He looked around and didn't see anyone so he opened the bottle. A genie appeared and thanked the man for letting him out.

The genie said, "I am so grateful to get out of that bottle that I will grant you one wish. I can only grant one." The man thought for a while and finally said, "I have always wanted to go to Hawaii. I've never been able to go because I cannot fly. Airplanes are much too frightening for me. On a boat, I see all that water and I become very claustrophobic. So I wish for a road to be built from here to Hawaii."

The genie thought for a few minutes and then said, "No, I don't think I can do that. Just think of all the work involved. Consider all the pilings needed to hold up a highway and how deep they would have to go to reach the bottom of the ocean. Imagine all the pavement needed. No, that is just too much to ask."

The man thought for a few minutes and then told the genie, "There is one other thing I have always wanted. I would like to be able to understand women. What makes them laugh and cry, why are they temperamental, why are they so difficult to get along with. Basically, what makes them tick."

The genie considered for a few minutes and said, "So, do you want two lanes or four?"

5.5 Are there auto ferries between the islands?

Not right now. The Hawaii Superferry provided auto and passenger transport between Oahu, Maui, and (very briefly) Kauai from August 2007 to March 2009, with plans to eventually resume service to Kauai and add service to the Big Island. As discussed below, all Superferry service has ceased; it could be resumed in the future, but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Pre-Superferry, and even when the Superferry was operating, local residents flew a lot between the islands on local airlines providing jet service between the four most-populated islands, and smaller planes also serving the other inhabited islands except privately-owned Niihau. They rented cars as needed when visiting other islands, generally at "kama'aina" discount rates restricted to Hawaii residents. On the rare occasions residents moved their cars between islands (such as for an inter-island change of residence), the cars usually went by barge or freighter.

In the mid-1970s, SeaFlite operated private passenger-only hydrofoil ferries between most of the populated islands (all but Lanai and Niihau). However, I understand that they never were very popular, largely because the ferry boats were prone to breakdowns, but also because it took several hours to travel between islands, through deep, unprotected waters that are rougher than the sheltered waters mainly used by the extensive auto ferry systems of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Not helping to smooth the ride through the rough waters was the relatively small size of the SeaFlite hydrofoils, which unlike typical auto ferries could and did use small-boat harbors (Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, Maalaea on Maui) rather than be limited to the larger deep-draft commercial harbors.

By the way, Hawaii DOT assigned Federal Aid Primary route numbers 6-10 to a network of ferry routes. These apparently were intended for a state-run auto ferry system the state had been noodling over throughout the 1960s and 1970s, not the short-lived SeaFlite passenger ferry system of the mid-1970s, which didn't always follow the FAP ferry routes. Here are the assigned FAP ferry routes, as of 1976 (from Hawaii DOT's Highway Systems Maps that year for all the islands), compared to the corresponding SeaFlite routes (per 1977 Hawaii Visitor Bureau maps), and the routes that the Hawaii Superferry served or planned to serve:

FAP FAP route SeaFlite route Superferry route
6 Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai) Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai) Honolulu - Nawiliwili (Kauai)
7 Honolulu - Kaunakakai (Molokai) Honolulu - Kaunakakai (Molokai) --
8 Kaunakakai (Molokai) - Kahului (Maui) Honolulu - Maalaea (Maui) Honolulu - Kahului (Maui)
9 Kahului (Maui) - Hilo (Big Island) -- --
10 Kahului (Maui) - Kawaihae (Big Island) Maalaea (Maui) - Kailua-Kona (Big Island) Honolulu - Kawaihae (Big Island)

There are private ferries between Lahaina in west Maui, and Lanai and (sometimes) Molokai. Hawaii DOT has in recent years tested a hydrofoil ferry from various points in west Oahu to Honolulu, to help relieve congestion on Interstate H-1. But these also are all passenger-only ferries.

Heightened post-9/11 airport security, which made interisland air travel less convenient than before, and also the planned merger (since called off) of two major interisland airlines, spurred renewed interest in inter-island ferries. A private company, Hawaii Superferry, worked with the state to develop an interisland ferry system that would carry cars and trucks as well as passengers. In January 2004, it contracted for construction of two new high-speed catamaran ferries. Construction of the first one was completed in January 2007, and it arrived in the islands in summer 2007.

The Superferry attempted to begin regular operation from Oahu to Maui, and to Kauai, in late August 2007, and indeed made two sailings to Maui and one to Kauai. But service was put on hold thereafter due to a variety of legal and other obstacles, including a last-minute Hawaii Supreme Court decision invalidating an exemption from environmental review the Superferry had relied on, the resulting injunction blocking the Superferry's continued use of Maui's Kahului harbor, and vociferous waterborne protestors blocking the Superferry's attempted second trip to Kauai's Nawiliwili harbor. The Hawaii legislature then passed a law designed to clear the legal obstacles to a restart of Superferry service.

Hawaii Superferry restarted once-daily service between Oahu and Maui on December 13, 2007, with a scheduled running time of 3 hours 45 minutes from Oahu to Maui, and 3 hours on the return trip. The company also began in May 2008 to offer a second voyage in each direction, four afternoons each week in peak season and at least once a week in the winter. Twice-daily service to and from Maui had been originally planned to begin in 2009 with the arrival of the second ferry vessel, but Hawaii Superferry decided to accelerate those plans, perhaps expecting that once-a-day service to and from Kauai would generate less business than adding an extra daily trip on the Maui route, which allowed commercial customers to take their trucks to Maui in the morning and return that evening, without the overnight stay required by the old schedule. Due to economic conditions, the Superferry held off until at least 2010 using the second ferry vessel for Hawaii service, which would have added service to the Big Island (once improvements and earthquake damage repairs were completed to the Big Island's Kawaihae harbor), and possibly also resumed service to Kauai. As far as I know, extension of Superferry service to Lanai and Molokai islands was never seriously considered, due to their small populations and limited harbor facilities.

The Superferry was used mainly by local residents and businesses taking their own vehicles, as well as local and tourist foot passengers. Most tourists still traveled by air among the islands, changing rental cars as needed. Due to a quirk in state law, the Superferry cannot transport rental cars (or other vehicles) without written permission of the registered vehicle owner. However, some rental car companies allowed their vehicles on the Superferry, with some even allowing one-way rentals. I took a National rental car on the Superferry round-trip between Maui and Oahu in January 2009, choosing a round-trip rather than a one-way rental since the one-way surcharge for the companies allowing one-way rentals was at least $400, much more than the one-way return trip fare for vehicle and passenger.

Superferry service was abruptly and indefinitely suspended in March 2009, a few days after the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the 2007 law allowing the Superferry to resume operations before completing state environmental reviews. At that point, the Superferry was at least a year away from completing those reviews, and couldn't afford to have its existing ferry vessel (plus the almost-completed second vessel it had on order) idle that long with no revenue coming in to help repay lenders. State legislative leaders decided against pursuing a new law to help the Superferry continue operating, since a new law focused on helping the Superferry would likely have the same constitutional problem the state supreme court found with the old law, and there was no appetite for broader revisions to state environmental laws that could pass constitutional muster but might have unwanted effects on non-Superferry projects.

The Superferry company tried but failed to find alternate uses for its two ferry vessels, in non-Hawaiian markets. so the company could try to survive until it could resume Hawaii service. It decided shortly thereafter to liquidate in bankruptcy, and to abandon to its creditors the Superferry's two vessels. Those vessels are now (as of February 2010) docked in Norfolk, Virginia (one or both was loaned to help with Haiti earthquake relief efforts), while loan guarantor U.S. Maritime Administration completes the foreclosure process and figures out what to do with the vessels. While the idea of selling or leasing the vessels to the Navy has been bandied about (the Navy is definitely interested in adding somewhat similar vessels to its fleet), as far as I know they are still theoretically available to return to Hawaii, if and when all the environmental issues are resolved in favor of resumed interisland ferry service.

Last I heard (as of February 2010), Hawaii DOT halted work on the environmental impact statement started when the Superferry was still in operation, with about a half-million dollars of work needed to complete the EIS. However, there is some legislative interest in exploring a possible state-run interisland auto ferry. The inevitable legal challenges to any plans to bring Superferry service or something similar back to Hawaii would further delay or potentially doom any restart. Even if the environmental issues are resolved in favor of ferry service, soft demand for Superferry service while it was operating (which had led the Superferry company to delay extending service to Kauai and the Big Island) could discourage any attempt to resume service, at least until Hawaii's economy and/or state budget fully recover from the current recession.

5.6 Where are the road tunnels in Hawaii?

Most of them are on Oahu, with the best-known ones the three sets of tunnels cutting through the Koolau Range northeast of Honolulu, connecting the Honolulu area to the Kaneohe/Kailua area on Oahu's windward (northeast) coast.

Here's a table, based mainly on the Hawaii Data Book (1999), with links to tunnel photos where available:

Island Route Tunnel name Length
Oahu John A. Burns Freeway
(Interstate H-3)
Tetsuo Harano (twin tunnels) 5165 feet (eastbound)
4890 feet (westbound)
Oahu John A. Burns Freeway
(Interstate H-3)
Hospital Rock (twin tunnels) 354 feet (eastbound)
353 feet (westbound)
Oahu Queen Liliuokalani Freeway
(Interstate H-1 -- eastbound lanes only)
Middle Street 393 feet
Oahu Likelike Highway
(state route 63)
Wilson (twin tunnels) 2813 feet (eastbound)
2775 feet (westbound)
Oahu Pali Highway
(state route 61)
Pali No.1 and No. 2
(pair of twin tunnels -- two in each
direction, one after the other)
1080 and 497 feet (eastbound)
1000 and 500 feet (westbound)
Oahu none (access to inside of
Diamond Head crater)
Kahala <0.1 mile?
Oahu none (access to inside of
Diamond Head crater,
currently closed to public
but may be reopened)
Kapahulu <0.1 mile?
Kauai none (private, used by
bicycle and other tour
groups with permission
of McBryde Sugar
Kipu-Mahaulepu 2200 feet
Maui Honoapiilani Highway
(state route 30)
Olowalu 318 feet

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"About this site"
  Go back to previous FAQs page to Page 4: Interstates
and other freeways
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Links to main page and other parts of Hawaii Highways site, and related sites:

Big Island route list Maui route list Lanai/Molokai route list Kauai route list Oahu route list Oahu Freeways exit guides
Site guide - what's where on this site, and how to get there Road Photos collection Credits and Sources Hawaii DOT highways web site Hawaii Highways main page

Comments, more questions, etc.? Please e-mail me.

© Oscar Voss. Last updated February 2010.