Taming the lake-lanes between St. Catharines and Toronto could call for lots of cash and patience — and a big ship.
It’s more complex than just pulling up with a boat, said Peter Green, former spokesman for a failed local ferry company, Shaker Cruise Lines. But though many a private operator has tried and failed, Green said it can be done with enough time and cash to allow a clientele to build up.
“You have to come in prepared to build a market over three to five years. People won’t rush onto the boat right away,” said Green, now a tour designer in the Buffalo area.
The call for a study into a fast ferry run by GO Transit between Niagara and Hogtown, floated by former St. Catharines council candidate Sean Polden, sparked a wave of public support on social media Thursday and Friday.
Thursday, St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan quickly backed the idea, which postulates a 45-minute jaunt by lake between cities.
It’s no easy task, Green said. He said an operator must be willing to pay through the lean years when clients are few. And it would take a big ferry — a 500- to 700-seater at least — to tame the choppy waters of Lake Ontario.
But it’s a great way to alleviate highway traffic and draw crowds, he said. “It’s certainly the most beautiful way to travel.”
It’s also proven to be a bust time and time again, said Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley. The longtime St. Catharines MPP said the ferry idea surfaces every decade or so but “it just has not worked, ever.”
He pointed to a hair-raising Shaker ferry trip in 1998, when a wave crashed over the ferry — with then-tourism minister Al Palladini aboard. A massive ferry from Rochester, N.Y. to Toronto also bombed.
“It has been tried several times and it has not been successful,” Bradley said. The province, he said, won’t launch another ferry study, but will focus on expanding GO train service.
“I always admire people who have that idea,” Bradley said. “You always run into the wall of practicality and realism when you’re talking about a project of this kind.”
City councillor Bruce Williamson, who represents Port Dalhousie, said he took the Shaker ferry for a season in the 1990s and enjoyed the ride. But he said the powerful winds and winter weather of Lake Ontario make a year-round ferry a tough sell, and the price tag makes it hurt even more.
“I doubt without a fairly substantial government subsity, would it be doable,” he said.
Williamson said he would love to see a ferry happen, but suggested a service could run for three seasons and take the winter off.
The expense involved makes a public option the only feasible one, Polden said. “The only way that this would work is through GO Transit operating it.”
Polden said it’s tough for a private operator to plunk down cash up front to cover expenses.
Bradley said the costs associated with funding ferries would hurt.
“Idealistically, people like the (ferry) concept. In a practical sense it would be a very heavy subsidization,” he said.
He left the door open, though, to a private operator stepping in to take another crack at a ferry.
Beyond money, Green said, is the challenge of facing the lake.
The company’s hydrofoils couldn’t handle the short, choppy waves, Green said. They tried an ocean ferry, but while it handled the waves, it was far too slow.
Shaker found out the hard way the ferries needed to be equipped to handle ice in the winter, he said. And they had issues going into the harbour at Toronto, where they had to slow down to stop their wake from making a mess of the area.
“The lake is not a gentle body of water,” he said.
The idea of a ferry has broad public support, though. He said residents loved the idea and the city of St. Catharines was eager to help out.
And he said a ferry is a good outlet for downtown Toronto residents. “Those people need to go places.
“The whole idea of recreational access is a major step.”
Among the biggest ferry fans, Green said, were cyclists from Toronto coming to ride Niagara’s roads.
Polden said he’s buoyed by the support for his idea from the public.
“They’re not seeing it as temporary ‘I’m going to Toronto for a day,’” he said.
He said he envisions three ferries capable of carrying 300 to 400 passengers, each making crisscrossing voyages across Lake Ontario.
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The promise of a shorter trip across the water would be enough to lure Betty Devine off the bus.
The St. Catharines resident regularly takes GO Transit buses to Toronto and Brampton. But when told of recent talk of a high-speed ferry that could bridge the two cities in 45 minutes, she said she’d make the switch if ever a ferry sailed into town.
“It would be quicker to get there,” she said. “The harbour is quite close. I’d be kind of worried about weather sometimes.
“The big thing is you don’t have all the traffic on the (Queen Elizabeth Way) to deal with.
“It would be nice if the government would do something that the people want for a change.”
The idea, pushed by an ex-St. Catharines resident in the hopes of garnering provincial support, found winning reviews from some commuters Friday, though not without skepticism.
“I would love that. That is a very good idea,” said Alva Valentino of Toronto, who commutes to Niagara. “But what would be the cost?”
Valentino said the province would have to undertake a feasibility study before launching a ferry. He said they would need to consider how many people actually leave Niagara to get to Toronto.
“If it is feasible, it could work,” he said. And he figured a ferry could be a better fit now than in 2001, when the province ruled it out.
“Now, the place is more populated,” he said. “It’s possible now. You have to do research. You have to come up with feasibility.”
Heather Phelps of Welland said taking the GO bus to Mississauga means a two-hour trip. She said being able to take a fast ferry would be nice, especially when traveling with her children.
But commuter Jane Sarookanian was less sold on the idea. She pointed to an incident in 1998 in which a former ferry operator’s hydrofoil was drenched by a wave with a provincial cabinet minister aboard.
“That lake can get pretty choppy. People might get sick on it,” she said.
“I’m just kind of iffy on it, really.”