Port bosses push truck-ferry service

The Hamilton Spectator March 25, 2004 - Mark McNeil

Larry Crandall, the Hamilton Spectator

Proponents say a cross-lake truck-ferry route would save fuel and driver time, improve highways.

Taking trucks off road and putting them on barges touted as a boost for Hamilton Harbour, relief for highway congestion

Hamilton Port Authority officials want to establish a cross-lake ferry service to carry cargo trailers from Oswego, N.Y. into Hamilton Harbour.

The service would remove trucks from 400 kilometres of highways in New York state and Ontario. And tractor-trailers would avoid heavy congestion at Niagara border crossings.

Proponents of the plan say trucking companies would save fuel and driver time. Highways would be safer, by diverting some truck traffic onto Lake Ontario.

The Hamilton Port Authority (HPA) would gain fees that would come from the increased cargo tonnage and vessels using the harbour.

The concept is called short-sea shipping. Representatives of the province's marine and port community met with MPPs and senior bureaucrats at Queen Park yesterday to discuss that idea and other marine issues.

Hamilton West MPP Judy Marsales says taking trucks off the road and putting them onto barges is an idea that "seems to have a lot of merit.It makes a lot of logical sense to me." Marsales is a former board member of the Hamilton Port Authority and was among the MPPs to meet with port representatives during an annual event deemed Marine Day.

In Europe, short-sea shipping is used extensively as a way to lower truck traffic on highways. But there are few examples on the Great Lakes -- a waterway that would seem suited for greater cargo transportation.

The most well-known example is a barge service that carries trucks between Windsor and Detroit. That one-mile ferry operation is primarily intended for oversized trucks and vehicles with hazardous materials that are not allowed on the bridge. Both the tractor and trailer are moved together.

The HPA proposal would transport only the trailers -- 90 to 110 at a time -- and each excursion would take about 12 hours overnight.

Western Ontario-bound trucks from the U.S. would drive to Oswego port rather than heading west along the I-90 on the southern side of Lake Ontario through Buffalo and up into Canada.

The trailers would be loaded onto a barge at Oswego, and the truck and driver would turn around to return home. The barge would travel the 265 kilometres along the shore of Lake Ontario, passing through the Burlington Ship Canal to Hamilton Harbour. There, the trailers would be removed from the barge and connected to other tractors to continue the journey.

"We're saying that instead of having one long haul truck journey, let's have a medium-sized haul, a water portion, and then a short haul for distribution around the area," says Bob Matthews, manager of marketing and trade development for the HPA.

Talks are still at an early stage. The HPA believes the service could be financed entirely from the fees charged to trucking companies.

Oswego port officials are interested. The port there could handle two to three runs per week. If the service became a daily one, some upgrades to the U.S. port - not necessarily costly ones - would be needed, said Tom McAuslan, executive director of the Port of Oswego. Hamilton would need some minor upgrades as well.

If the idea flies, HPA officials will look at starting a second ferry service between Prescott, Ont. - on the St. Lawrence River in eastern Ontario - and Hamilton Harbour. The incentive for truckers there is avoiding traffic congestion around Toronto.

Matthews says they opted for the American-side ferry first because the border hassle faced by truck drivers is such a strong incentive for trucking companies to consider inter-modal transportation possibilities.

Gregg Ward, vice-president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, says he feels the time has come to better use the Great Lakes.

"Short sea shipping would certainly work on Lake Ontario. There is so much tonnage moving between Canada and the U.S. on trucks that we should be able to put some of it onto the lake."

Ron Foxcroft, CEO of Fluke Transport in Hamilton, said "a barge service makes a lot of sense. It's a very interesting concept.

"I would think it would be cheaper to send a trailer by barge than it would tying up a tractor, trailer and a driver at the border."

Foxcroft also noted new rules that limit the number of hours truck drivers can drive will encourage trucking companies to use ferry services.

By using a ferry, the cargo on a truck keeps moving without a driver who has limitations on the number of hours he or she can spend behind the wheel.

Matthews says port authority officials have been talking to barge companies about handling the service. But he would not identify those companies because talks are at such an early stage.

"There used to be packaged freight all over the lakes but that was many, many years ago," said Matthews.

Today, barges carry freight but usually only on a project basis. Marine transportation is used when the cargo is particularly big or heavy.

"To actually run a dedicated scheduled service,that's what makes this interesting," he said.

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