WisBusiness: Milwaukee-Michigan ferry makes its maiden voyage

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE – The Lake Express, loaded with dignitaries, media and passengers who won a lottery, completed its maiden voyage at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon.

The $18 million high-speed ferry completed its first round trip between Milwaukee and Muskegon about an hour behind schedule, but officials said that was because a ceremony in Muskego took longer than planned.

Several Harley riders exited the ferry first when it docked at the south end of the Hoan Bridge. They revved up their engines and the crowd of about 200 people who had gathered to witness the first landing of the ferry.

Those spectators were quickly joined by more than 200 passengers from the trip. The crowd gathered under a tent, just in case the dark clouds that had threatened all afternoon let loose.

“This is a great day for Milwaukee and Muskegon,” said mayor Tom Barrett, who took the round trip maiden voyage. “Please consider our city a suburb. We will consider Muskegon an eastern suburb.”

Jim Holperin, secretary of tourism, said, “The lake got a little smaller today. That’s good for Michigan and Wisconsin.”

Officials estimated that 100,000 visitors to Milwaukee could take the ferry, generating an estimated $25 million in tourism.

Several Muskegon officials made the trip to Milwaukee. Other local and state officials from Wisconsin included DOT secretary Frank Busalacchi, Milwaukee harbor commission president Daniel Steiniger, Common Council president Willie Hines and port director Ken Szallai, who was referred to by several speakers as the driving force behind the ferry idea.

David Lubar and Oyvind Solvang, partners in Lake Express, said many obstacles had to be overcome to make the ferry a reality. Lubar said the Maritime Administration financing program, and the fact Northwestern Mutual Life bought the bonds from that program, were keys to the project.

“It has been a true partnership between the private and public sector in many ways,” Lubar said.

Solvang, a native of Norway, said the Lake Express was “restoring and enhancing a once traditional link between Milwaukee and Muskegon.” He called the effort “challenging to say the least.”

The Lake Express has faced challenges, and will continue to do so. Lubar and Solvang struggled in raising enough private sector capital for the venture, but received $14.5 million in loan guarantees from the federal government. That prompted some supporters of the competing S.S. Badger in Manitowoc to cry unfair competition.

But, supporters of the Lake Express point out that the Badger has benefited for years from a federal law that allows only ferries built in the U.S. to carry passengers to and from American ports.

Terminals and docks in Milwaukee and Muskegon have run behind schedules, and at least in one case, over budget. The state of Wisconsin made a $800,000 grant to aid the construction of the Milwaukee terminal.

It still has work to be done, after construction has been hampered by the wet spring weather. In part to fend off additional charges of unfair competition, state officials have emphasized that $2.83 million was granted to Manitowoc last year for harbor improvements that aid the Badger.

In Muskegon, construction of a new terminal and dock has fallen about $400,000 short. Muskegon County Commissioners recently approved a $200,000 grant for the project.

On its trip from Alabama, where it was built, to Wisconsin, the ferry also suffered damage to a hydraulic pressure line and had a door to the car deck come loose. Those were repaired in time for the Coast Guard to give a final certification to the ferry last Sunday.

Milwaukee officials also have expressed concerns about how to move passengers who do not have vehicles from the terminal at the south end of the Hoan Bridge in Bay View elsewhere in the city. Manitowoc provides a shuttle bus, but Milwaukee transportation officials have said their budget will not allow additional services to the terminal. A lease with a rental car company has been reached.

Finally, the Lake Express was a victim of its own popularity on its opening day. Because so many seats were taken by dignitaries and journalists, the lottery had to be held for paying customers. Some potential passengers expressed disappointment, and ferry officials said they had under-estimated the demand for the first day tickets.

“I was a little concerned because I didn’t receive a confirmation number,” said Wauwatosa’s Bob Brunow, one of those lottery winners. “But, it’s exciting to be part of this.”

Brunow, who runs a company that conducts tours of Milwaukee, said he believes the Lake Express has “great business potential” for the city and region. “I’m very interested in what this can do for Milwaukee and the area, as well as the towns in Muskegon,” he said.

See a WisBiz In-Depth feature on the Lake Express and the S.S. Badger, a ferry running from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich.: Competition on the Big Pond for Ferry Passengers