Truck ferry enhancement plan stalled

WINDSOR, Ont. – The Detroit-Windsor truck ferry’s future is in jeopardy due to a nearly bizarre bureaucratic situation involving a small piece of roadway that was thought to be public but turns out to be privately owned. A major ferry improvement project is on hold as a result.

The ferry, operated since 1990 by Gregg Ward and his father John, who run Canadian Maritime Transport Ltd., is the only way for trucks hauling hazardous materials to cross the river separating Windsor and Detroit. In fact, the Ambassador Bridge has been known to grant hazmat passage to certain carriers from time to time, but such permission isn’t universally available. So, practically speaking, the ferry is the only route across the Detroit River for trucks carrying dangerous goods. It also carries some oversized loads. The ferry makes five trips a day across the river in each direction.

The Wards are in the midst of a $5-million enhancement project on the Canadian side that would improve the terminal area, the dock, and road access to the ferry while also enhancing border security. With all engineering done and the necessary permits now acquired, dredging and other in-water work must begin by July 1 and finish by October 30 due to environmental restrictions. But construction tenders could not be solicited on schedule and the project has been delayed indefinitely — the ferry’s future put in question as well —  because a small section of the only road access to the ferry on Maplewood Drive turns out to be privately owned. Assumed to be city property, even by Windsor and Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) officials, it recently came to light that the ferry’s neighbor, a terminal and warehouse operated by Morterm Ltd., actually owns a 104-by-30-ft piece of that road.

Parts of the ferry project are being done by the MTO, funded by the provincial and federal governments’ $300-million Windsor Border Initiatives Implementation Group that aims to improve the city’s border facilities. The provincial Ministry has offered to finance Windsor’s purchase of this small piece of road from Morterm but so far the city has not acted and a deal has not been struck. The MTO’s offer includes bringing the road up to city standards.

Some observers fear that if this relatively simple challenge cannot be successfully met by local, provincial, and federal officials, it does not bode well for the proposed joint construction of a second bridge a mile south of the Ambassador by provincial, state, and U.S. and Canadian federal authorities. Mired in politics and controversy, that project is infinitely more complex than the ferry operation’s enhancement plans.

Gregg Ward’s fear is simple: if the purchase of a small piece of Maplewood Drive can’t be accomplished quickly, those plans will have to be put off for at least a year. And in the worst case, the ferry operation could be shut down entirely if for some reason Morterm decides to block access. That seems unlikely, and in fact Morterm has said it will sell its Maplewood piece to the city if it becomes a public roadway.

Ward points out that his ferry is the only local alternative to the Ambassador Bridge. In the days immediately following 9/11, for example, with the border choked and trucks routinely waiting more than 12 hours to get over the bridge, the ‘Big Three’ car makers depended on the ferry to help meet their just-in-time parts-delivery schedules.

“It doesn’t make sense to put this at risk," he says.

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