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Gordie Howe bridge might doom local ferry business, but the owner is OK with that

Oct 15, 2015

Most people know there are two ways to cross the Detroit River into or from Canada: The Ambassador Bridge, or for passenger cars only, the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. 

But there's another little-known way only used by vehicles too long or too big to navigate the bridge, or those hauling hazardous materials.

And that's the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, which is at the end of a little-used road two miles south of the current bridge, close to where the new bridge is to be built.

On a blustery morning two days ago I rode that ferry, the Lac St. Jean, piloted by an ancient Canadian tugboat, the Stormont, across an industrial stretch of the river with Gregg Ward.

Ward, a boyish-looking 54-year-old, and his father John started their business a quarter of a century ago, on Earth Day, 1990.

"We thought it would be a part-time job," he chuckled.

Instead, it has become, more or less, their lives. They haul five loads of trucks to Windsor and another five back, year-round, fighting currents and ice during the winters.

Business has been decent lately, in part due to the growing popularity of windmills, whose huge pylons cannot fit on the bridge. Other times, they’ve just barely gotten enough work to keep things going.

When the new Gordie Howe International Bridge opens, it is likely to spell doom for the Wards' business, Gregg believes.

"It'll be able to haul larger and heavier loads," he said, and may be safe for hazmat as well.

He doesn't expect his tiny ferry to be able to compete.

You might think he would have joined Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun in his crusade to stop any new crossing.

The ferry is Ward’s livelihood – and gives him the flexibility he needs as a single parent to spend time with Michael, his severely autistic teenage son.

But you’d be wrong.

The Wards have resisted several attempts by the Morouns to buy their business, and Gregg has been a supporter of a new bridge from the start.

“How can a major metropolitan area like this rely on only one ancient bridge, without any backup?” he says.

Though a native Detroiter, Ward went to college in Quebec, and has a hard time understanding how people on this side of the border can be content to let their infrastructure decay.

He’s also a little worried that something might yet happen to delay the new bridge, which Canadian officials still hope to have up and running by the end of 2020.

With some excitement, he shows me the place where the bridge’s footprint, customs plaza and immense supports should soon rise.

And he doesn’t understand why Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and some other politicians aren’t supporting the bridge more enthusiastically.

“Think of all the good jobs it will create throughout the area,” he says. “Is there anything Detroit needs more than jobs?”

Once construction starts, that should also free more than $2 billion in federal money for Michigan’s roads.

I’ve known Ward slightly for a long time, and he is one of a very few who honestly care about the public good.

Even, that is, when it might conflict with personal well-being. If we had a few more like him, it might be harder to be a cynic.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.