15 August 2012

Harsens Island Stunned as Owner of Only Ferry Service Announces Plans to Retire

Story first reported from freep.com

For the 1,200 full-time residents of Harsens Island, the car ferry run by Champions Auto Service is their only year-round link to the mainland.

They use it to get to work, travel to doctor appointments and go shopping. Children depend on it to get to school.

So residents of the island at the mouth of the St. Clair River were shocked Tuesday when news began to trickle out that Champions' owner wants to retire and shut down the ferry service.

David Byson didn't give the Michigan Public Service Commission a date for when he would end the ferry service.

"That's awful. We have to have a way to get across," said Adele Raska, a 25-year island resident. "Everybody has to go across, whether you want to or not. We have to go to shop, we have to go to doctors, we have to go for everything."

Although many residents have small boats and there is a tiny airstrip on the island, the ferry service is the only public transportation to the mainland, operating even in the midst of winter.

There is only a scattering of restaurants and small businesses on the 16-square-mile island, which is part of St. Clair County's Clay Township. The island's marshy interior is ringed by both year-round and vacation homes, with its population swelling to about 5,000 in the summer.

Byson, who couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, notified the MPSC in a July 28 letter that he intends to retire.

On Tuesday, the MPSC announced it was launching an investigation into transportation to the island. The MPSC wants to ensure a smooth transition from the current service to whatever service may replace it, said spokeswoman Judy Palnau.

The commission gave Champions Ferry 120 days to submit a proposal for transportation to and from the island, Palnau said.

After that is submitted, the agency's staff will write a report with recommendations by March 1.

Even the township wasn't notified of Champions' intent until the MPSC posted its notice.

"It took us by surprise to us here at the township. We didn't know anything about it," said Clay Township Supervisor Tom Krueger. "The only information we have is on the MPSC website."

There have been threats to close the ferry in the past, Krueger said. Champions also sought a rate hike in May from the MPSC, but was denied.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun has talked about building a bridge between the island and mainland, but Krueger said that idea seems to have died as Moroun fights to stop a second bridge to Canada.

"Even though he's a private business, I do believe he's an essential service, and I don't believe the MPSC would let him just shut down," Krueger said of the ferry service.

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