Harsens Island residents vent over ferry service, rate hike

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Clay Township — In the wake of a dock collapse that interrupted ferry service last week, Harsens Island residents vented their anger Wednesday over that incident and a recent rate hike during a meeting with state and local officials. 

About 200 people packed the township hall Wednesday for the session, which veered into a variety of questions about the ferry service's future and islanders' frustration with it.

Champion's Auto Ferry owner Dave Bryson addresses the public about a mechanical failure on one of his ferries that played a part in the mainland dock collapse, at Wednesday's public forum at the Clay Township Hall.

The privately owned-and-run Champion Auto Ferry, which the island’s 1,000 residents rely on to get to and from the mainland to their island homes in Lake St. Clair, came under scrutiny this past week after a partial dock collapse on the mainland. Islanders and visitors found themselves temporarily stuck either on the island or the mainland side for nearly five days until repairs were done and the ferry resumed its three-minute, one-way trips.

The interruption gave riders — already steaming at a $2 per trip rate hike that takes effect Jan. 1 — another reason to vent their displeasure at the ferry line run by David Bryson, brother of Clay Township Supervisor Artie Bryson. Many carried handmade signs into the meeting displaying a variety of thoughts like “Are We Safe?” and “We Can and Will Fight City Hall.”

While county and state officials were hoping to focus on preparing for possible record water level increases in coming months, attendees appeared more eager to discuss the safety of the ferry, who's responsible for its inspection, how it should be operated and by whom, and even whether it's time to revisit thoughts of building a bridge to the island.

David Bryson described the shutdown of the ferry as “regrettable” and apologized at the meeting to anyone who was inconvenienced by the five-day service halt.

“We did all that was humanly possible to alleviate the suffering,” said Bryson, noting a smaller craft shuttled citizens to and from the mainland temporarily, though without their cars. “We got the dock out of the water and repaired — it was a pretty startling feat. We don’t have anything to hang our heads in shame about.”

Bryson said repairs and improvements continue, including extending a ramp from 15 to 30 feet to help handle heavy trucks transporting much-needed building materials to the island so residents can protect their property to predicted flooding.

Some island residents, like Midie Fannon, said the time for writing letters and making phone calls has passed. Fannon was in favor reconstituting the “inactive” Harsens Island Transportation Authority — or, more aggressively, encouraging neighbors to get behind a fund to hire an attorney to file a class-action lawsuit on their behalf.

“We are in need of action now,” Fannon said.

Jim Neumann, who runs a fuel business and kayak rental on the island, said he has hosted informal discussions over the ferry where people had to be turned away because so many showed up.

“I was rather disappointed by today’s meeting,” said Neumann. “I was especially disappointed that the State Police — who may have answers to many of our questions — did not attend.”

MSP approved the rate hike last month.

Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the State Police, said no one from the agency attended “due to our limited role in this matter."

“The MSP does not regulate the ferry or inspect docks in any fashion,” Banner said in an email. “Our only responsibility is to approve the ferry rates. Last session, Senator (Dan) Lauwers put forward legislation, on behalf of the Harsens Island Ferry, that states MSP CVED (Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division) shall approve the rate increase without audit if certain conditions are met. Those conditions were met and therefore the rates increased.”

A round-trip ticket now costs $12, up from $10, but if purchased in a packet of 20, the cost is $9 per round trip (increased from $7).

Neumann and others at the meeting believe the State Police were not provided with complete information, or failed to investigate it.

“I have been told by someone at their office that they don’t independently investigate the claims that an increase is justified,” said Neumann. “They just accept it. That's not right.”


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