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Harsens Island ferry woes renew calls for a bridge

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Clay Township — Island living might sound romantic, but for Harsens Island residents, it's been less than idyllic this month, thanks to a recent disruption in ferry service that has resurrected calls for a bridge linking their home to the mainland.

About 200 islanders jammed the township hall last week to discuss a $2 round-trip rate increase and other concerns about Champion's Auto Ferry following the collapse of the ferry's dock, which idled 24-hour transportation for five days this month, angering residents who rely on the service to get to jobs, stores and medical care.

“I love it out here,” said MidgieFannon, a 27-year resident. “I’ve rebuilt a home and am on a shipping channel, right on the water. It’s a piece of heaven, and I really don’t know if I could afford to move somewhere else.

“But what’s bad is we don’t know how safe our ferry is, and my children and grandchildren, who all live on the mainland, say they are afraid to come out here to visit. I want them here for Christmas dinner.”

Fannon, 75, said the time for letter-writing to elected officials for help has passed. She favors some of the island’s 1,000 full-time residents getting together to hire an attorney to file a class-action lawsuit against the privately owned Champion Auto Ferry for the rate increase, alleged unsafe conditions and lack of maintenance of the ferry and dock.

The unexpected shutdown stranded some residents on the island and others on the mainland and fueled resentment against ferry operator David Bryson. Several carried handmade signs into the township hall meeting, vowing to fight city hall.

Critics like Fannon admire Bryson’s “old-school” work ethic, but feel they deserve better than waiting days for repairs, which Bryson labored to do himself.

“The ferry was charming at one time, years ago, but it's unnerving when you can’t get a fire truck or ambulance if you need it,” Fannon said.

Fannon and others say no one from the township, county or state is in charge of regulating or doing safety inspections on the property or the ferry, the islanders’ only mode of transportation to the mainland.

Township supervisor Artie Bryson, the brother of the ferry operator, insists that township authority only runs to the land, and the docks and ferry ramps extend beyond the land. Artie Bryson insists he is not paid nor receives any funds from the ferry operation or his brother. 

David Bryson offered a public apology to residents at the meeting for their inconvenience but stressed he did everything possible to get the service up and running.

The Bryson family has been involved in the auto ferry business since the late 1930s or 1940s, beginning with the Bryson brothers' grandfather, said David Bryson, who took over the company in the 1980s. In the beginning, boats pushed auto-laden barges across the river.

“In old days, there were three or four ferries — some got put out of business, for whatever reason,” he said. “We’ve been the only ferry since the late '50s."

He disputed characterizations that the ferry line has a “monopoly.”

“A monopoly is a creature of government,” Bryson said. “Anyone can set up a ferry business. We don’t control that.”

Champion’s Auto Ferry owner David Bryson offered a public apology to residents for their inconvenience but stressed he did everything possible to get the service up and running.

State Sen. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, puts it a different way, saying "I don't see anyone rushing" to start a competing ferry service.

“People might think the operation is more lucrative than it is, and if they got into the expenses — like the $50,000 an engine he (Bryson) said he had to spend — it might change their minds.”

Bryson said he couldn’t estimate how many vehicles he services in a given day or week because the number of island residents fluctuates, from “400 to 500 during the winter to a couple thousand in the summer months.”

“We are working hard to keep the ferry running and docks repaired,” Bryson said,

Maureen Boury, a 15-year Harsens Island resident, said in 2005, she could buy a package of 20 ferry tickets for $100, or $5 per roundtrip. Starting Jan. 1, the same packet will cost $180, or $12 per roundtrip.

“We need our rates frozen. We need an attorney to look into taking over the ferry, and maybe it's time for a bridge,” Boury said.

James Neumann, who operates a marine fuel business and kayak rental on the island, said “the rates are a big deal,”

“It’s not like this is the Hamptons or Sanibel Island," he said. "We’re a little hick town with common folk living paycheck to paycheck. A few dollars extra every day to get to jobs is a lot.”

The rate increase, approved last month by the Michigan State Police, is part of what's leading some residents to favor a bridge.

Neumann and others say ferry services covering similar distances are much cheaper than what Harsens residents pay. The Drummond Island ferry, which covers one mile on the St. Mary's River, charges $100 for a 20-roundtrip pass.

Artie Bryson said the Harsens Island Transportation Authority, which has been inactive for about seven years, could be helpful in moving matters forward, even obtaining state grants to underwrite some of the costs to keep fees down. It has only two of its original five members, appointed by the township and county.

The ferry rate increase is part of what’s leading some residents to favor a bridge.

“I would love to have some residents come forward to want to work on it,” Bryson said. “Two of the last members died, and a third moved away, and they were never replaced, and it has been a non-functioning body, which hasn’t turned in an annual report in several years."

Neumann said the ferry, still under repair, can't handle heavy trucks. According to the company's website, a 20,000-pound weight limit is in effect.

Islanders worry about rising water levels in the spring after the ice and snow melt, and not getting materials they need to protect their property.

“I need a heavy load of dirt. I can’t get it,” Neumann said. “I can’t get sandbags. We can’t get lumber that we need. This is presenting some serious problems.”

Residents have been meeting in each other's homes on the island, strategizing on what happens next, Neumann said, including hiring an attorney to file a class-action lawsuit against Champion Auto Ferry.

Another solution under discussion is to have a bridge spanning the one-third mile from the mainland to the island.

Paul Opsommer, legislative affairs director for Central Transport, a bridge builder owned by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, said depending on support, a “bridge is a very real possibility.”

“Our traffic study completed a decade ago showed the tolls would be the same as the charges the ferry had in place at that time,” Opsommer said in an email.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the company a wetland permit three years ago. The matter was successfully challenged in court, but by then, the steam had gone out of the process.

“We can now move forward," Opsommer said, adding state and federal permits could still take up to two years and cost about $1 million.

"Prior to construction, we would do an investment grade or what is sometimes referred to as a purpose and need traffic study,” he said. “The study would be done while we are applying for the permits.”

About 200 islanders jammed the township hall last week to discuss a $2 round-trip rate increase and other concerns about Champion’s Auto Ferry following the collapse of the ferry’s dock.

“We have two conditions,” he said. “The bridge would have to make sense financially for both the residents and the bridge company, and the local residents and local elected officials would have to be supportive of the project.”

That has proven to be a problem in the past, according to Artie Bryson and Neumann.

“Residents were not in favor of a bridge in the past, and I personally had some concerns on whether the pilings used to support it might pose an ice dam situation,” Bryson said. “But I have never opposed a bridge, if that’s what residents want.”

Neumann said residents had been leery of a bridge, with some fearing it would have provided easier access to the island for criminals.

“There was a ‘gated community attitude' (that) with the river and the ferry system, they and their property would be safer,” Neumann said.

Opsommer said nearly three dozen residents have contacted him, and he anticipates meeting with them starting in January.

“Yes, we have been interested in the project for a long time; however, some local elected officials and numerous residents have opposed the idea,” Opsommer said. “That appears to have changed from what I saw at the meeting.”

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319