Detroit-Windsor truck ferry in danger of imminent closure

The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, a mainstay since Earth Day 1990, hauling hazmat and oversize loads between Windsor and Detroit, could close in the next few months without government funding.

Ferry operator Gregg Ward, an American, said traffic has taken a plunge since 2019, a factor he’s hard pressed to account for. The ferry closed for just the first two months during Covid-19 lockdowns and the pandemic hasn’t really played a role in reduced traffic.

“It’s just been a general decline,” he said, adding “if trucks are following the law” there’s “no logical reason” for the drop in traffic.

The ferry exists because hazmat and oversize loads are banned from the Ambassador Bridge. They will be allowed on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, due to open in late 2024. Anecdotally, there have been reports that some trucks try to cross the Ambassador despite the hazmat restrictions.

Ward is not referring to lost business from long distance haulers, say from Chicago to Toronto, who mainly use the Port Huron–Sarnia Blue Water Bridge, which allows hazmat. He’s speaking about “local” operator movements, estimated to be close to 14,000 a year.

Where have the trucks gone?

He has lost upwards of 65% of that business, he said.

In 2022 there were 3,838 trucks using the ferry so that meant almost 10,000 were not, based on past numbers using Bridge and Tunnel Operators Association, government, and University of Windsor truck research data.

Accordingly, Ward is asking provincial, state, and federal governments for a total of US$160,000 to make up the revenue stream. He said he has been in talks on the “very complicated” matter for months.

He said it doesn’t make economic sense for the trucks to drive the additional 105 miles in Canada or 65 miles in the U.S. from Windsor-Detroit to Sarnia-Port Huron, more than double for a U.S. hazmat detour with a mileage cost of $511.75. The ferry charges $125 per crossing and the Blue Water Bridge $18.75 per five-axle trailer.

“There’s no way someone will choose to go through the Blue Water Bridge for that cost for a local delivery,” he said.

Truck ferry traffic
Hazmat loads cannot travel across the Ambassador Bridge. (Photo: Ron Stang)

Ward said the decline has been seen specifically with hazmat traffic, not overside or “episodic” loads like parts for wind turbines or large machinery for automotive plants. He said keeping the ferry moving also benefits major economic development.

Beside parts for the new bridge, new EV battery plants are being constructed – NextStar (Stellantis and LG Energy Solution) in Windsor and Volkswagen in St. Thomas. Some inputs for those plants will be hazmat.

He said for trucks carrying oversize construction material like deck panels going on the Gordie Howe Bridge, their detour would be through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and back through Ontario. They can’t use toll roads because the width is 10 ft.

Detours not economically viable

“So you’re talking a huge amount of unpredictability for having to do that detour – plus all the costs,” he said. “And you have to go through every community and see if that community is cool with you bringing something over 17 ft. wide and wait for their police escort. It really screws up the delivery schedule.”

By contrast a load can arrive at the truck ferry dock at 9 a.m. and “they’re in the Customs plaza by 10:30 on the other side.”

Ward said the ferry has also provided “redundancy” during occasional emergencies like after 9/11 and when the Ambassador Bridge was closed last year due to the blockade by Freedom Convoy protesters.

But beyond the immediate time and money savings for customers, Ward said the ferry provides safety for any number of communities through which trucks would have to pass en route to the Blue Water Bridge. “The detour route to the Blue Water Bridge exposes more communities to the risk of accident,” he said.

Ward, who has always known his business would close once the new Gordie Howe Bridge opens, says it behooves governments to now subsidize the ferry so that there is no gap in service before the new bridge opens. He said the ferry provides a “wide public benefit.”

“I don’t think it’s a significant amount of money for the value received,” he said. “It’s like an insurance policy.”

Ward went public with the issue just before a March 31 deadline to renew a marine charter with the company he hires to move the barge. But he can continue operating the ferry for a few more months. “I would just sign something (with the company) short-term,” he said.

Support for funding

The ferry’s docks were upgraded a few years ago with “substantial” government funding.

“This public expenditure was made during the planning for the new bridge because the truck ferry was identified as playing a pivotal role in maintaining border redundancy and resiliency.”

Brian Masse, NDP MP for Windsor, where the ferry dock is located, has called on federal ministers for infrastructure and transport to accede to Ward’s request.

“With the new Gordie Howe Bridge opening in the near term if the present schedule is maintained, some of the need for redundancy will be established but the (ferry) provides additional capacity and flexibility that would potentially still be required,” Masse, the NDP’s economic development and Great Lakes critic, wrote.

Mike Brown, owner of C.H. Brown Transportation of Wyandotte, Mich., which hauls “six to nine” shipments of hazmat per day using the ferry, said loss of the ferry would be detrimental to his business and customers.

Noting it would now take about five hours to make the circuitous route using the Blue Water, Brown said “it would be detrimental to the customer for sure because the product wouldn’t get moved as quickly as it needs to be moved.”