CNMI Cancels Tinian-Saipan Ferry Feasibility Study

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Department of Public Works criticized for decision

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 26, 2014) – Department of Public Works Secretary Martin Sablan confirmed that DPW has cancelled a Tinian-Saipan ferry feasibility study plan, citing Federal Highway Administration’s concerns over funding and evaluation process. Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz cried foul over the decision and is now asking Commonwealth Office of Transit Authority special assistant Thomas J. Camacho to "remove" the ferry planning from DPW and "place it back to COTA."

"Yes, DPW has cancelled the feasibility for now. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it cannot be pursued again in the future. Federal Highway has concerns about it," Sablan told Saipan Tribune.

A $170,000 funding for the planned Saipan-Tinian ferry service feasibility study is supposed to come from FHA, with the CNMI’s DPW as the administering agency in partnership with COTA.

But Sablan said FHA is "not keen" on funding the feasibility at this time because the CNMI does not even have funds to buy and operate an interisland ferry system.

Sablan, however, said if there is a private entity that’s willing to operate a ferry service, then the feasibility study needs to be conducted by that private entity.

"Right now, there is no investor," he added. "If the CNMI is the one to operate a ferry, then Federal Highway will not be hesitant to fund the feasibility study. But the CNMI government does not have the funds to buy and operate a ferry."

‘Moving backward’

The Tinian mayor, meanwhile, said the DPW secretary’s decision to pull the plug on the Tinian-Saipan ferry boat service seems to be a move "backward" instead of a move "forward."

"We want to bring it back to COTA essentially, and away from DPW, which unilaterally decided to pull the plug on the project," Dela Cruz said in a phone interview yesterday.

Dela Cruz wrote a letter to Gov. Eloy S. Inos dated May 22, saying he’s "shocked" to hear the DPW secretary’s announcement at a recent Commonwealth Public Transportation Advisory Board meeting. The Tinian mayor asked for a meeting with the governor, the DPW secretary and the Commonwealth Ports Authority at the governor’s earliest convenience to discuss the matter.

"As you know, we have been working on this federally funded program since January 2013. Your executive director, Mr. Tom Camacho, has done a great job at getting us to the point of issuing a contact for the feasibility study. I cannot understand why the [DPW] secretary would decide to pull it now," Dela Cruz told the governor in a one-page letter.

Dela Cruz reiterated that having a ferry service between Tinian and Saipan is "vital to developing commerce and communications" between the two islands.

"The ferry service will be incorporated into the Tinian Ports Master Plan that CPA is now considering and which we hope to be discussing with MarForPac [Marine Forces Pacific] again soon. Tinian needs this service and COTA provides an opportunity for us to have it supported with federal funds," the mayor added.

In a separate statement, the Tinian mayor said as discussed in previous CPTAB meetings, places like Washington State and the East Coast rely heavily on ferry operations to move residents and tourists along American intercoastal waterways, much as buses transit highways.

"The same federal law can apply to the CNMI, if taken advantage of it," he added.

Back in February, COTA was hoping that any Tinian-Saipan feasibility study would recommend an auto-passenger ferry "so we can bring vehicles back and forth. It’s an option for people." COTA had said the government cannot pursue a ferry service without a feasibility study, citing a super ferry in Hawaii that flopped "because there was no study really done, no impact study."

The Saipan-Tinian ferry plan is separate from the Guam-Rota ferry service plan, because the latter involves two separate jurisdictions.

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