WINDSOR, Ont. –The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry is crying foul after the federal government waived icebreaking fees for a couple of other regional ferry services but kept its fees intact.
“It’s very frustrating,” company vice-president Gregg Ward told Truck West. The company has been fighting for a waiver of the fees for more than a decade. The federal government has also brought legal action against the firm four years ago over fee non-payment.
The company has so far paid the fees into a trust fund pending the court outcome. About $150,000 is in the fund, from fees amount to $25,000 a year.
The government in late June published a remission order waiving fees for the Bluewater Ferry between Sombra, Ont. and Marine City, Mich. and the Walpole Island, Ont.-Algonac, Mich. ferry.
Both ferries operate across the Saint Clair River near Sarnia. The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry carries trucks and hazardous materials across the Detroit River.
In the case of the Bluewater ferry, the company won’t have to pay more than $200,000 dating back to 2001 nor approximately $20,000 in each of future years but will still have to pay a small amount, according to Conservative MP Pat Davidson (Sarnia-Lambton). The Walpole-Algonac ferry will be spared $450,000 in back charges with similar undisclosed small amounts payable in the future.
Both companies had the fees waived after they petitioned on the basis of economic hardship.
An assessment found the fees “were ‘unjust’ and ‘unreasonable’ for those companies,” noting the ferries “support cross-border commerce for surrounding communities with frail economies, and if the two companies were to cease operations during winter months, local populations would suffer undue financial hardship.”
The Bluewater handles transport trucks while the Walpole does not, though the Bluewater handles cars to trucks in a 90:1 ratio, according to Lambton County Councillor Steve Arnold.
“I’ve been on the ferry with them myself,” he said. An owner of the Bluewater refused comment. “I promised I’d keep my mouth shut from now on,” he said.
While the two St. Clair River operators applied for an assessment of economic hardship the Detroit-Windsor ferry did not.
Ward said he did not know of such an application until hearing about it from an owner of the Bluewater.
“But the difference in operations was that they weren’t sued, we were,” he said, even though those companies had also withheld payments. “If we had found out about this earlier and we hadn’t been sued there would have been a different take on it.”
Asked why his company was sued when the others were not Ward said he had “not a clue…it’s completely bizarre.”
He figured the government might use the argument that if three cars are speeding and one is pulled over “it doesn’t really matter” who’s stopped. “But I think that discretion is used in a peculiar way. It’s not a very transparent application of their authority.”
The company is also the only one that is American-owned.
The two St. Clair operators, and the small Boblo Island ferry also on the Detroit River and which has been exempt from fees, are Canadian-owned. “That’s just a fact,” Ward said.
He also questioned the political representation in each area. The ferry operators along the St. Clair River are in the federal constituency of a government representative. The Detroit-Windsor ferry is in a riding represented by an opposition member, the NDP’s Brian Masse, who has strongly supported the ferry.
“He’s in a different party of course,” Ward said.
Meanwhile the Detroit-Windsor ferry has received support from Windsor City Council, the Windsor Port Authority and the Ottawabased Chamber of Marine Commerce.
Masse wrote Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea that the ferry is “vital” because it is the only crossing in the area allowing HazMat.
Requests for an interview with Fisheries and Oceans were turned down because of “matters that are currently before the courts,” spokesman Alain Belle-Isle said.
Ward has protested the fees on the grounds that icebreaking is useless. He has never had assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard but has been assisted by American icebreakers which do “the majority of the ice-breaking in the river system.”
Ironically, he said, icebreakers have been more of a hindrance than help. “Every time the icebreaker goes up the river it clogs your ice path so it’s very unproductive.”
Lambton county councillor Arnold agreed, noting the same complaint by local operators. “The only time they do not run is when they’re ice-locked, and the icebreakers manage to do that more than they should,” he said.
Davidson said a reason the government waived fees for the St. Clair River operators and not the Detroit-Windsor one may have been because of litigation.
“If it’s a court case that they’re looking at that’s probably where it’s being resolved,” she said.