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Island A Step Closer To A Deeper Channel In Detroit Harbor

Washington Town Chairman Joel Gunnlaugsson receives the news that the Joint Finance Committee approved including $5.2 million in the proposed state budget for the dredging of Detroit Harbor. Photo by Richard Purinton.

On April 30, 2013, the Joint Committee on Finance of the Wisconsin State Legislature approved a motion that includes $5.2 million for the dredging of the Detroit Harbor channel. The section that affects Washington Island was one part of an omnibus transportation motion passed by the committee.

Town Chairman Joel Gunnlaugsson received word of the approval just after the vote was taken.

One section of the committee's motion increased bond authorization for the state's Harbor Assistance Program by $5.2 million. The following section of the motion required the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to provide a grant in that same amount "during the 2013–15 biennium to the town of Washington for dredging, disposal of dredged material, and related costs associated with the dredging of the West Channel entrance to Detroit Harbor."

The April 30 approval follows up on the state's Emergency Harbor Assistance grant of October 29, 2012, which provided $182,700 for the "final engineering" needed before any dredging could occur. Immediately after the October 2012 emergency grant, Dick Purinton, CEO of the Washington Island Ferry Line, stated, "It's not automatic that the dredging will now take place, but this is a very positive step."

The victory in the Joint Committee on Finance on April 30 now puts Islanders one giant step closer to achieving the goal of a deeper channel in Detroit Harbor and guaranteed ferry service connecting to Northport.

The problem of shallow water became critical during the first months of 2013 as the WIFL had to dredge at the Potato Dock and shift ferry service there because of the record-breaking low lake levels that made it impossible for the icebreaker Arni J. Richter to reach the regular ferry dock.

"This ferry run is the Island's equivalent of a freeway," said State Sen. Frank Lasee (R-1st District), who collaborated with State Rep. Garey Bies (R-1st District) on a letter to committee members in support of the motion. "If the water drops too far, [Islanders] could literally be stranded on Washington Island," continued Lasee.

Bies said, "While the safety of the residents of the Island is the biggest concern, I was also worried about the significant economic impact a loss of ferry access would mean to the Island and our district as a whole. Year-round access generates more than $16 million in annual economic activity through the transportation of passengers, vehicles and cargo."

After the Joint Finance Committee completes its deliberations on additional issues before it, the committee will submit its complete 2013–15 budget recommendations to the State Legislature, which must pass a budget bill for Gov. Scott Walker's signature by June 30.

If these next legislative steps proceed as expected, work on the dredging of the Detroit Harbor channel can begin later this year.

In late March, potential contract bidders attended a meeting on Washington Island, and they were able to see firsthand the Island facilities and locations that will be used during the dredging. Each contractor received a bound specification book that included bid requirements and questions to be answered in order to submit a qualifying bid.

On April 16, when members of the Town Board opened bids from three potential contractors, all the bids came in lower than the town and the WIFL had anticipated. They ranged from approximately $3 million to $4.7 million. Added to the contractor fees will be costs to repair town roads, engineering and construction oversight fees and a 15 percent project contingency.

"The exact timing of the project isn't settled yet," said Hoyt Purinton, president of the WIFL, "although if all goes well we may be doing some site preparations during August. But the real work won't start until after Labor Day."

"To keep costs down, digging will have to be done 24 hours a day, but hauling will be only during daylight hours," said Purinton. "The ferry route might have to be adjusted, and the Potato Dock will be an option to better avoid work areas. But there should be no real impacts on travel to and from the Island."

Image: Black outline shows the location of the needed dredging in the Detroit Harbor channel. Illustration courtesy of Foth Infrastructure and Environment LLC.


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