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Water taxis to make a comeback on Detroit River?

historical drawing of ferry
Passengers board a ferry docked on the Detroit Riverfront. Date unknown. (Detroit Public Library photo from the Burton Historical Collection)

Before the bridges, the roads, and the highways, there were ferries. 

In Detroit, some are pushing for a comeback after more than a decade of discussion. 

Earlier this month, City Council member Angela Whitfield-Calloway asked the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority to conduct a feasibility study on connecting 25 miles of the Detroit River by passenger ferries. 



“Detroit and Wayne County has an immeasurable asset in the Detroit River that is wholly underutilized in commercial, recreational, and public use,” Whitfield-Calloway said in a memorandum to Mark Schrupp, the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority’s executive director.

In the letter, Whitfield-Calloway inquired about the port authority’s plan to improve the city’s “blue economy,” citing investments in the global blue economy that now top several trillion dollars. The council member also asked if the port authority had ever considered creating a county-run ferry system, and what the cost would be to study the feasibility of ferry service between Detroit’s Atwater Street dock and Grosse Ile.  

Schrupp told BridgeDetroit the authority plans to provide Whitfield-Calloway with an estimated cost for the study. 

David Gifford, a public transit advocate and creator of Transit Guide: Detroit, said he feels like a feasibility study has “been done before.”

And it has. Talks of water taxis in Detroit have been happening for at least 13 years.  


In 2010, the city was awarded a $2.4 million federal grant to buy water taxis and several feasibility studies were conducted. But years went by and the city never used the money.  

In 2019, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the port authority might finally start to use the money by the end of the year, focusing on service for the downtown area. Kyle Burleson, the port authority’s director at the time, told Crain’s that the authority hadn’t forgotten about water taxis, but the idea had taken a back seat. 

“The taxi was for a cross border service that was not feasible and would have required a significant subsidy to operate,” Schrupp said, referring to the 2010 proposal. “The port authority has an annual budget of $1.2 million and no ability to raise funds to subsidize, annually, the cost of operating a ferry boat service.” 

The grant, Schrupp said, is no longer available. 

Schrupp said when he became executive director in 2021, he was informed of two options for ferries that had been explored; a cross-border ferry, and another that would connect Hart Plaza, Milliken State Park and Belle Isle. 

“Both studies concluded without action steps due to funding challenges. Neither ferry could sustain operations with fees and would require annual subsidies,” he said. According to Schrupp, the ferry would only be possible if passengers paid 100% of the costs. He said the past studies would need to be updated but would probably be more than $30 per person for a trip across the border. 

Presently, federal funding for states to use on ferries is “at historic levels,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

U.S. Department of Transportation courtesy photo

There is $912 million in federal funding available to state departments of transportation to use for ferry boats over the next five years from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by the Biden-Harris Administration in 2021. 

Last year, Michigan received $3.8 million from the program which can be used for maintenance facilities, purchase of transit vehicles for residents to get to and from ferries, and upgrades to existing ferry operations. Across the state there are several other ferries including Muskegon to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Mackinac Island Ferry. 

In January, Michigan received another $6.6 million from the federal government for Beaver Island to renovate the docks and build a new ferry to add to the two that already run from Charlevoix. 

Jeff Cranson, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the Detroit port authority hasn’t applied for any federal ferry service grants yet. 

“That initial $3.8 million is spoken for but there could certainly be more opportunities if they demonstrate an interest in providing services,” Cranson wrote in an email to BridgeDetroit. 

In the past, the port authority has worked with the Belle Isle Grand Prix to take passengers by ferry from the port authority’s dock off Atwater to Belle Isle and back, a trip that took about 12 minutes

This year, state officials at Belle Isle started a multimodal study to see the ways traffic congestion can be reduced on the island, including by using a ferry or shuttle service. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

There’s also private interest. In 2014, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, a nonprofit committed to the development of the riverfront, funded a feasibility study of a mixed-use system of trolleys on the riverfront and ferries on the waterway. 

“We first looked into the concept of water taxi service in a 2014 study we commissioned,” said Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. “The study found that there was definitely interest in water taxis along the riverfront. If funding sources could be identified, we would certainly take another look at the concept,” he said. “Water taxis would be a great way for people to experience and enjoy the award-winning Detroit Riverfront.” 

The past three years in a row the Detroit Riverfront has been named Best Riverwalk in America by USA Today

Residents like Gifford might also be willing to pay at least some money for the experience. 

“Ferries aren’t just about the transportation, they’re about the experience,” he said. “The more ways to connect to the river the better, and if they can serve as transportation even better.”

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