Ala Wai Already Busy Enough Without Ferries

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (5/23/98)
By Ray Pendleton

Why can't the Ala Wai Canal be used commercially?

That was the basic question behind a proposal I received the other day via e-mail from a concerned reader.

After all, he pointed out, places like Venice, Italy have canals where boats are used to transfer people and goods from place to place, or for providing scenic tours for visitors. Now that the Convention Center is soon to open and the canal is to be dredged, wouldn't it be a great idea to ferry visitors there by water taxi?

At first blush, the idea sounded appealing. Imagine, a fleet of vessels - built low to the water so they could go under the bridges - transferring the thousands of conventioneers staying in Waikiki's hotels. It would surely reduce the bus fleet and ease the traffic congestion currently predicted for our thoroughfares.

But, a glance out my office window to the Ala Wai below brought another question to mind. Might such commercialization create a major conflict with those now using the Ala Wai?

According to historic record, the Ala Wai Canal was created in that exuberant era called the "Roaring Twenties." By the time of the stock market crash in 1929 - or perhaps because of it - the 2 1/2-mile land reclamation and flood control channel project was declared completed. Waikiki's mosquito-breeding duck ponds were gone and in their place was a canal and solid ground for developers to build on.

Throughout its 70-year life, the canal, although badly neglected by the state, has done a fair job of funneling the run-off from the watershed above it out to sea. And even though not by design, it has become a recreational area as well.

Photographs from the 1940s show the Waikiki side of the Ala Wai, from Ala Moana to Kalakaua Blvd., lined with small power boats.

Later, once the state constructed the adjacent boat harbor, the canal became virtually the exclusive domain human-powered vessels - canoes, kayaks and rowing shells.

In recent years, the popularity of kayak and outrigger canoe paddling (both six-person and single) has been escalating and, not surprisingly, the Ala Wai Canal has become the flat-water training ground of choice for hundreds of paddlers in the area.

Morning seems to be the favorite time for solo paddlers and they can be seen darting along the canal even before sunrise. Later in the day, after school or work, paddlers take to the scores of canoes that line the canal's mauka side and are soon threading their way through floating traffic jams around turning marks and under bridges.

The coordinated strength and beauty of motion inherent in outrigger paddling cannot be denied. The sight of synchronized paddles flashing across the glistening water at sunset becomes a graphic reminder of what the visitor's bureau calls Hawaii's Sense of Place to tourist and resident alike.

The final question is, then, could a commercial water taxi system safely coexist with the current usage of the Ala Wai Canal?

If we can assume that ferrying conventioneers to and from the center would be done as needed throughout the day, and understand that the paddlers' peak hours - between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. - would be in major conflict with dinner-hungry taxi passengers, I would have to believe the answer is unquestionably no.

The Convention Center isn't St. Mark's Cathedral and the Ala Wai can't be turned into the Grand Canal of Venice.

Last week's Column -|- More Water Ways

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