July 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Ferry owner backs Detroit River bridge that may sink his job

In the shadow of the mighty Ambassador Bridge, Gregg Ward operates the little ferry that could.

For two decades, he and his father, John Ward, have run a plucky, small but important freight operation, carrying trucks with hazardous or oversized cargo banned from the Ambassador Bridge by law.

The tiny, little known Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry fills a conveyance gap five days a week, as 18-wheelers carrying whisky or paint or gasoline drive onto the ferry — a barge and tugboat combination, piloted by Captain Dave Seymour, and Jazzy, a Labradoodle.

Last week, this primitive ferry delivered 120 huge windmill stanchions and blades to the Windsor bank of the river.

But the ferry’s owner is his own worst advocate.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Ward, who sees his ferry as part of the antiquated infrastructure of the Detroit River crossing system.

“If the Ambassador Bridge is shut down for any reason, this is what you have as a backup: our little ferry.”

Here’s where the pluck comes in: Ward is an advocate for a government-built second bridge, one that would, he believes, “provide redundancy and resiliency to the most important international border crossing we have.”

And that pits him against the incalculable fortune and indomitable will of bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun.

But the proposed bridge, now stalled by a lack of federal funding for a customs plaza in Detroit, would likely spell the end of the truck ferry, wouldn’t it?

“It would,” says Ward, as he steers his own vehicle onto the 120-foot-long barge. “We opened to fill a niche and if that niche is no longer there, I would probably have to do something else.”

To Ward, 53, a Dearborn resident who has a master’s degree in finance and an entrepreneurial spirit, the antiquity of the bridge and tunnel system are apparent.

And so is the need for the government to own the next bridge, rather than leave international transportation at the mercy of a billionaire.

What’s in it for Ward? “Nothing,” he says.

He has long been judged credible and public-spirited by community activists in the area.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib calls Ward “a great leader on the issue of hazardous materials. He’s been an amazing partner for the community because he understands the dynamic of commerce.”

Ward and Moroun have been at odds since Ward opened the ferry on Earth Day in 1990. At that point, the ferry was jeered as the “toxic barge” by environmentalists.

Since then, Ward’s own landing plaza was paved on the Windsor side courtesy of the Ontario government. He’s steeped himself in the lore and law of the international crossing.

Dan Stamper, president of the Ambassador Bridge Co. questions Ward’s intentions, saying: “There has to be some kind of agreement to buy him out, there has to be.”

But Ward says the only party that has ever offered to buy him out is Moroun himself, a claim that Stamper didn’t dispute. (“It must have been at least 15 years ago,” Stamper said.)

Two years ago, Moroun tried to get the regulations changed so that trucks could carry hazardous materials across the bridge.

Although that effort failed, Stamper told me Monday that “there are certain commodities on the hazardous (list) that the Ambassador Bridge has historically allowed,” despite laws to the contrary.

For now, Ward’s quaint truck ferry provides a crucial, legal and safe commercial link between two mighty nations.

Although he would prefer Michigan to embrace the future, accept Canada’s $550 million largesse, and begin building a modern bridge capable of handling trucks carrying hazardous material, he’s absolutely willing to stay in business, 19th-century style.

Captain Dave Seymour operates the tug boat Stormont which moves the barge ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry owner Gregg Ward is an advocate for a ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)