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Letter From Lake Michigan: ‘Bye to the Badger and hello to a modern car ferry

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Wake trailing the Lake Express as it cruises at 30 knots, showing the thrust of 3,000-hp diesel engines married to large water jets in the boat's catamaran hulls.

Sunday evening, en route once again to western New York for our summer sojourn, Sallie and I boarded a car ferry to cross Lake Michigan.

It was early evening, with fair skies and winds out of the north at 10 to 15 knots. Waves 1 to 3 feet and diminishing. Instead of girding for battle on the Chicagoland freeways, we were looking forward to a light meal, some pleasure reading and a spectacular marine sunset over Wisconsin, retreating astern at something over 30 knots.

No, this wasn’t the S.S. Badger – the creaky and coal-fired relic of earlier times, of which I have written here with a mixture of fondness and exasperation.

There was no plume of sepia smoke streaming aft, no industrial fumes in the compartments. No gusher of ash-laden slurry pouring through the hull, to the alarm of passengers craning over the rail.

Alas, no opportunity either to roll out a sleeping bag on an upper-deck chaise for a short night’s sleep under the stars, for this boat’s schedule lacks an overnight crossing and, anyway, gets from port to port in about 2½ hours to the Badger’s four.

So we walked up and down, forward and aft, indoors and out, watching the lights of Milwaukee fall away behind the huge twin wakes of her catamaran hulls. We sat for a while and walked the decks some more, learning to keep balanced against the mild pitching motion as she cut through the swells.

And at just about the time we might have been entering Gary by car, assuming light traffic, we saw the lights of the Muskegon breakwater rising out of the twilight.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Lake Express.

Boat love gone sour

Car ferries used to be common on the Great Lakes, a popular way to cut big chunks of road time from motoring vacations in the era before the Interstate Highway System changed everything.

One by one they went out of business, and as the 20th century drew to a close there were just two: one on Lake Erie and the Badger on Lake Michigan, crossing from Manitowoc to Ludington.

Larry Werner, an old Strib colleague who dislikes driving in general and detests the Chicago freeways more than anyone else I know, used to sing its praises after every trip home to Bay City, Mich. So a few years ago, heading from the Twin Cities to Buffalo, I decided to give it a try.

It was love at first sailing. The 60-year-old Badger is historic in its status as the last coal-fired ship on the Great Lakes, and it manages to retain the funkiness of bygone days in the merchant marine.

It was built to carry railroad cars across the lake, the cars themselves full of coal and steel and such, and conversion to a cargo of people and their vehicles has not erased its industrial lineage. You feel you’re on an old, working ship and the opportunity to sleep on the top deck in open air is, for my money at least,  kind of priceless.

Playing games with the law

But for years the Badger has been in trouble with environmental regulators, first in Michigan and then at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,  over its practice of dumping coal ash into the lake at a rate of about a ton per crossing, four crossings a day, 450 trips in an average season. 

For a while it was easy for me to overlook this because it seemed that progress was being made. Researchers at universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota had obtained a grant to explore repowering the ferry with natural gas. The Badger operators claimed to be studying ways of retaining the ash while under way and disposing of it on land.

But as I worked my way through EPA’s file on the Badger, it became abundantly clear that the ferry’s operators were pretending to seek solutions while playing games with the EPA process and having Republican friends in Congress try to legislate special exemptions – probably hoping that last November’s elections would solve their problems once and for all.

That didn’t work out so well, and last March the company reached a consent agreement with EPA in which it would retain the ash for landside disposal – a solution it previously claimed was impossible – in exchange for two more years grace.

The status of that deal is unclear at this writing, and calls to EPA for clarification weren’t returned. The deal has not yet been approved by a federal court, as required, and an amzing 7,000 statements collected during a public comment period last April were posted only in late July.

I suppose the Badger operators may yet remodel their boat and repair their citizenship, but in the meantime I’ve found an even better boat.

A thoroughly modern boat

The Lake Express is not in the nostalgia business. Its founders reasoned that the modern, Interstate-era motorist wouldn’t opt for a ferry service across Lake Michigan unless it was much faster than driving, but not much more expensive than the Badger.

After more than a decade of planning and preparation, they launched the country’s first high-speed car ferry in June of 2004: a modern catamaran design that uses four big diesel engines (two per hull, one at the bow and the other astern), to power water jets not unlike those on a jet-ski, only way bigger.

Photo by Sallie Anderson
Sunset over Wisconsin from the Lake Express.

Where the Badger reeks of 1950s Americana, the Lake Express has a distinctly European feel. It was produced by the Australian shipbuilder Austal at a new shipyard it opened in Mobile, Ala., in 2001.

The Lake Express is only about half as long as the Badger, at 192 feet, but nearly twice as tall, at 190. It carries 248 passengers, 46 cars and 12 motorcycles per trip; the Badger lists its capacity as 600 people and 180 cars, trucks, buses and RVs.

The Badger’s average speed across the lake is a bit over 15 knots; the Lake Express was moving a little more than twice that fast on Sunday and is capable of 34 knots.

I’ve never been on the Badger when you could really feel much of its movement on the water; the Lake Express definitely lets you know you’re on a boat, despite some high-tech equipment designed to counteract waves and level out the ride. This was a plus for me, personally, but folks who are prone to motion sickness might feel otherwise.

The Badger makes two round trips each day, and the crossings take four hours. The Lake Express makes three round trips and the crossings are about 2½ hours. It makes 800 trips a year, down a bit from an initial 1,000.

Our round-trip fares on the Lake Express came to a bit over $500 (two people, one vehicle); on the Badger we would have paid a bit under $400. A hundred bucks is real money to me, but I’d gladly pay more than $500 to avoid the torture of two transits of the Chicago expressways on a summer vacation trip.

And I think I can point out, without sounding like a tree-hugging scold or Lake Express shill, that this modern boat has one other big advantage over its venerable competitor to the north: It meets or exceeds all environmental requirements in its operating permits, while the Badger continues to operate in violation of the law on coal ash.

The Badger operators point out that they deliver offsetting environmental benefits by taking lots of cars, trucks and people off the roads around Lake Michigan. This is true, though some of the calculations they present have seemed a little overblown.

I asked Aaron Schultz, who handles marketing and media relations for Lake Express, if he had some comparable stats for that vessel. He didn’t, other than noting that in a typical season it ferries 100,000 people and 25,000 vehicles:

We do deliver an environmental benefit but it’s not something we make a lot of noise about, because it’s truly just a fundamental part of what we believe.

We’re a transportation company, moving people quickly and efficiently in a modern way and responsible manner, meeting or exceeding all of the environmental requirements that apply to us. We’ve proved that you can do all of those things and make a living at it.

This notion that every time the government steps in with regulation, that’s a bad thing, is just so short-sighted.

You can always make the case that this one discharge into the lake isn’t so serious, by itself, but all of those things add up. I grew up near Green Bay and I can remember when you wouldn’t want to fish the rivers there, they were so filthy. They’re cleaner now, and so is Lake Michigan, and we all benefit from that.

Well said.

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