Catalina Channel Express is hoping to sail through the state bureaucracy, past a competitor's protests and on to Santa Catalina Island, providing new ferry service from Redondo Beach's King Harbor.
Catalina Express asked the state Public Utilities Commission in January for permission to run ferries from Redondo Beach. The commission regulates boat transportation to the island to ensure that Catalina residents have reasonable access to the mainland.
A public hearing on the proposal will be held Monday and Tuesday before an administrative law judge, who will make a recommendation to the commission. Officials say it will probably be three to six months before the commission decides.
Redondo Beach officials and business leaders plan to testify in favor of the proposal, saying it would give residents a convenient alternative to driving to docks in San Pedro while helping the already popular King Harbor businesses.
"I think it would be a positive move," said Ernie O'Dell, executive director of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. "The attractiveness of an offshore island is always there for locals as well as tourists. . . . It could be nothing but an amenity to Redondo."
The City Council of Avalon, where most island shuttles dock, unofficially supports the shuttle service from Redondo Beach because it wants additional tourists, City Manager John Longley has said.
But not everyone is as enthusiastic. Catalina Cruises, the largest passenger carrier to the island, has filed an objection to its competitor's application.
Terry Koenig, general manager of Catalina Cruises, said the proposed June-through-September service out of Redondo Beach would be "destructive competition" for its vessels, which leave from San Pedro and Long Beach.
Catalina Cruises operates at a profit only between June and September, he said, and depends on its summer business to support the company during the off-season. If the company does not make as much money during the summer, it would have to cut back service throughout the year, Koenig said.
"It's like airports," he said. "You've got a couple large airports and what you don't need is a bunch of little airports."
Koenig said he also is worried that Catalina Express would expand its service from King Harbor in the future, although the company says it is planning to start with only one vessel from Redondo Beach.
"If somebody gets in and starts operating with a small boat out of Redondo Beach, that also means you can go back and add more boats and more service later on," Koenig said. "Basically, we get one chance to protest."
Greg Bombard, vice president and general manager of Catalina Express, said he would expand the service from King Harbor if there was a demand. Catalina Express plans to move one of its four vessels that now leave from San Pedro to King Harbor, he said.
Three of the company's boats carry 149 passengers and the other carries 60, and Bombard said demand would determine which one is moved to Redondo Beach.
Bombard and the company's attorney, Terence Lyons, expect many of Catalina Express's current customers who live closer to Redondo Beach than to San Pedro to use King Harbor. They also said that a boat leaving from King Harbor would attract new customers who do not want to drive to San Pedro.
Lyons said the Catalina Express operation in King Harbor would not be "destructive competition" because, like Catalina Cruises, the company is required by the PUC to operate out of San Pedro throughout the year.
Although Catalina Express plans to have shuttle service only during the summer season from King Harbor initially, Lyons said, it is seeking authorization from the commission to operate year-round so the service could be expanded later.
Bombard said service from King Harbor would not be much competition to Catalina Cruises because the the companies offer different kinds of service.
"We both run boats across the water, but I believe that's where it quits," he said.
His company runs smaller, more comfortable boats with airplane-style seating and amenities, he said, although the fare is higher. The company charges $25 for a round trip from San Pedro and is proposing a $30 round-trip fare from Redondo Beach. The company offers about six trips a day out of San Pedro during the summer and is proposing one or two from Redondo Beach. Catalina Express said it would take 20 minutes longer to get to Avalon from Redondo Beach than from San Pedro.
Catalina Cruises is much bigger, operating five 700-passenger and one 150-passenger vessels out of San Pedro and Long Beach. It charges $21.90 for a round trip between the mainland and Catalina Island, making 20 to 30 trips a day from June through September.
The commission gave Catalina Cruises permission in February to begin service out of San Diego as well. Catalina Express did not protest. Other companies also run shuttles to Catalina from San Diego and Newport Beach. Steve Kofahl, who unsuccessfully tried to establish boat service to the island from King Harbor three years ago, has also filed a protest with the PUC over Catalina Express's application. Kofahl could not be reached for comment.
Bombard said that if Catalina Express receives permission to operate out of King Harbor, the service will begin this summer or next spring, depending on when the approval is given.