In June 2011 the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority (DWCPA) celebrated the opening of its new $22 million terminal and public dock along the Detroit River. The facility promised to be a destination for Great Lakes cruises and tall ships. It also sparked plans for a passenger ferry to connect the downtowns of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. There hasn’t been a ferry between the two downtowns since 1929.
The discussion around establishing “the first international passenger-only ferry operating between the United States and Canada” focused on the opportunity for an alternative commute across the river, particularly for Windsorites that work in Detroit’s health sector, and benefits to quality of life and tourism in the region. The idea attracted the support of elected officials on both sides of the border, culminating in a visit to Detroit by Canadian MP Brian Masse and Jason McMichael, Customs and Immigration Union national vice-president; they applauded Detroit’s new terminal and spoke promisingly of customs officials from both countries operating from offices in the facility.
For a couple of years, progress towards a passenger ferry was swift. The DWCPA established a Ferry Boat Discretionary Program to raise the funds for new ferries and passenger facilities. The ferry was promoted as a way to increase flexibility in moving people between the two cities and a survey was commissioned to gauge the interest of daily commuters. DWCPA officials hoped to have the ferry operational by the spring of 2013.
And then, silence. The excitement of a possible passenger ferry faded. You would be hard pressed to find any media coverage on the idea since the fall of 2013. What happened?
For starters, it turns out interest in commuting by ferry isn’t as high as the DWCPA initially hoped. At a community roundtable in September 2013, the agency released the results of a survey of Detroit healthcare employees. Only 26% expressed interest in commuting by ferry. Concerns included the cost of the proposed $5 one-way fare, questions about how a ferry would impact commute time, and a general unease with public transportation.
It isn’t all bad news, however. The lack of interest in commuting daily by ferry has forced the DWCPA to revise its plans, but it doesn’t seem to have killed the project altogether. Instead, the focus has shifted to using a passenger ferry to promote tourism in Detroit and Windsor. A passenger ferry would give visitors and residents another option to help take advantage of the amenities of both downtowns. It would also provide a much-needed connection for bicyclists to travel between the two cities.
A lower anticipated demand has also scaled back the size of vessels for the route. The DWCPA is currently working with naval architecture students at the University of Michigan to design ultra-efficient and light ice capable vessels for 49 passengers. It has also made a preliminary schedule for the ferry, with service planned to reflect the St. Lawrence Seaway schedule – operations shortened or extended as weather permits – with daily roundtrips every 20 to 30 minutes.
Challenges still remain. Despite the early optimism, the DWCPA cites customs and regulatory issues as the “primary operational concern.” And the DWCPA is still searching for the funding required for equipment, infrastructure and the ferry’s operating budget. Still, it is heartening to know the DWCPA is still thinking of making this project happen. It will strengthen the connection between Windsor and Detroit, promote more activity along the river as well as encourage additional tourism and investment. One of the many things that is overlooked in this debate by critics is the number of tourism dollars that are lost due to the hassle of getting across the bridge or tunnel. Combined with the M1 Light Rail project, this would allow Windsorites to easily get across to Detroit, then take the train up to shop and hang out. But it all starts with getting these projects off the ground.