Lake Erie Ferry Service Closer to Reality

Karen Schaefer: In recent years, there've been several proposals to start a Cleveland ferry service across Lake Erie to Canada. Most of them have targeted tourist travel as the primary source of income. But a new initiative now underway would rely mainly on shipping freight between the two countries. The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority is about to embark on a new study to investigate the nuts and bolts of attracting a private ferry operator. Port Authority Director Gary Failor says the new ferry would carry a substantial cargo, as well as passengers.

Gary Failor:We're not envisioning something small, we're envisioning a large vessel, 600 feet, that can carry 250 trucks, 400 cars, and 500 people - and envisioning it going twice a day. We have a base feasibility study that shows that it is profitable.

KS: Failor says that study shows a Lake Erie ferry service would need to capture just half of one percent of the existing border trade. Cleveland's World Trade Center records Ontario as Ohio's largest foreign trading partner. In 2000, the state exported $14 billion worth of products to Ontario. And Ontario sent $9 billion worth of goods to Ohio. Many of those goods are automotive parts destined for Canadian or U.S. assembly plants. Other Canadian manufacturing markets cluster most densely on the eastern end of the province near Toronto. Dave Goss of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association says, married to Northeast Ohio's strong manufacturing base, the new form of transportation could save companies both time and money.

Dave Goss: A lot of things today are moving by container, especially in the international. So if that crossing of the lake is quicker to get to whatever the destination is on the other side or coming this way, that saves time. And time and labor is a very huge part of trucking.

KS: Businesses could also save or defer payment of some duties and tarrifs by operating out of the Port's foreign trade zones. Goss believes that could mean a real difference in profitability, especially since new security precautions at U.S-Canadian borders have dramatically slowed just-in-time delivery of parts and products. The federal governmetn is backing the idea. They've given the Port Authority $800,000 to develop the plan. The curernt proposal is to run a ferry directly across Lake Erie 63 nautical miles from Cleveland to Port Stanley. Both ports already have the necessary infrastructure to dock a large ferry and to get goods quickly onto highways and railroads. Plans include running the ferry year-round, using ice breakers in years when the lake freezes. Port Director Gary Failor says there's only one snag.

GF: It's not as though we have to build a road. What we have to do is - there's been a number of ferry operators that have shown interest in this, but every one of them is not terribly experienced and is badly capitalized.

KS: Finding a North American cold-water ferry operator with an available vessel or the willingness to build a new one just for Cleveland may take some doing. In the meantime, the Port Authority will work with NOACA, the region's planning agency, to identify operators that might be able to undertake the project. The two groups expect to have a marketing plan ready in the next 12-18 months. But it will still be some years before a Lake Erie freight ferry can become a reality. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.

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