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Winter Break-Up

WINDSOR, Ont. - The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry has gone public over a long-standing dispute - and frustration with years of unresolved litigation - over a decade-old user fee imposed by the federal g...

WINDSOR, Ont. – The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry has gone public over a long-standing dispute – and frustration with years of unresolved litigation – over a decade-old user fee imposed by the federal government for ice-breaking services.

The fee was imposed to capture a small portion of the costs associated with physically clearing the ice as well as providing information on ice conditions to marine operators.

But the fee is uniform for all commercial operators, regardless of the distance a ship travels. This has sparked the ire of the Detroit-Windsor ferry operators, which typically carry HazMat and oversize shipments a very short distance between the two cities.

Gregg Ward, the company’s vice-president, said the ferry has disputed the fees from day one. And efforts to resolve the matter in the courts have bogged down in numerous technical delays.

“The Canadian federal government continues to change Crown Attorneys, delay responses to federal court filings and allege they have ‘misplaced’ files,” he said. He accused the government of “manipulating” the judicial system.

Carole Saindon, a spokeswoman for the federal justice ministry, said, “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing litigation.”

The fee is imposed between mid-December and mid-April. Vessels travelling in Canadian waters are required to pay $3,100 per trip to a maximum of eight trips or $24,800.

This means a ship travelling from Thunder Bay to Buffalo is charged the same amount of money as a ship travelling from Sarnia to Detroit. Or, in the case of the Detroit-Windsor ferry, as a vessel travelling from the Canadian side of the Detroit River to the American side, several times a day.

Jaime Cacares, director of program strategies for the Maritime Services Directorate of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the fee was one of numerous charges imposed by various government departments to assist in cost-recovery. “It’s quite small, it’s about 10%” of what the service actually costs, he said.

Bur Ward argued the fee imposes undue hardship for a company like his, which traverses a narrow stretch of water. “We’re unique because we cross the channel, we don’t go up and down the channel,” he said.

Ward said the fee also exempts travel in waters within a Canadian port. But because the ferry goes from the Windsor port to the Detroit port – less than two kilo-metres away – his business is charged because the vessel has left Canadian waters. “It’s just the fact that we cross into Detroit that we’re charged.”

Ward said that throughout the litigation, he has paid the collected fees into a trust fund. But he has to pass on the fee costs to his customers, the trucking industry. “It’s part of our rate, it’s not a separate charge,” he said.

Moreover, said Ward, seldom has he seen a Canadian Coast Guard vessel actually clear ice in the Detroit River. It’s the US Coast Guard “that does the majority of ice-breaking.”

Cacares described the Detroit River as a “shared responsibility” between Canada and US Coast Guard services under an international agreement.

However, “there are always instances where there might be a vessel closer during a particular time of the year but that doesn’t mean that the ice is exclusively broken by any one jurisdiction.”

Cacares said any commercial operator has the right to petition the government if they believe the fee is imposing undue hardship. A partial or full waiving of fees is possible.

“There’s a socio-economic impact assessment that we can offer to any carrier who finds…that they’re unduly impacted by the fee.”

Ward said the company originally paid the fee, then”We said we’d put it in a trust fund until we could have some type of hearing or hardship study or something, and it never happened.” Cacares declined to comment on the company’s situation as the case is before the courts.

Paul LeFave, chair of the transportation committee of the Windsor and District Chamber of Commerce, expressed shock when told of the fee.

“I’m flabbergasted to tell you the truth,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

LeFave lauded the ferry for being a “strategic asset” for international trade. The next HazMat crossing is the Sarnia/Port Huron Blue Water Bridge, 160 km away. “The Chamber has supported them all along,” he added, noting the company’s “great job” at helping move trucks across the border in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In a letter to the Justice Department, Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis called the fee “arbitrary and unfair” for a service “without regard for their particular operating context.”

He also condemned the dragged out legal case and associated costs as a “significant and unnecessary financial burden.”

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