New Ferry Raises New Possibilities

January 16, 2005
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MUSKEGON — Casually sitting atop a storage bin located aft of the Lake Express ferry, David Lubar looked out and saw not just the expanse of Lake Michigan but a sea of opportunity.

His vision of launching a high-speed, cross-lake ferry that linked his hometown of Milwaukee with Muskegon had finally come true on that cool, cloudy June morning.

As he spoke about the venture, his voice competing with the roar of the wind and the twin diesel engines that power the Lake Express, Lubar offered a vision that was just beginning to unfold with the ferry’s maiden voyage.

He talked about the potential of the Lake Express, which in 2004 ushered in a new transportation link for travelers going between Michigan and Wisconsin and beyond.

“We’ve only scratched the surface as far as what develops and how this boat can be used — and it will be used in ways we haven’t even thought of,” said Lubar, the head of the Milwaukee-based investment group Lubar & Co. that took the dream of a high-speed ferry across Lake Michigan and turned it into reality.

“We have literally hundreds of ideas we have not had a chance to pursue,” Lubar said during the Lake Express’s first run back to Milwaukee from Muskegon, where a throng of passengers, news media and VIPs led by a Harley-riding Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington boarded the vessel for the trip west.

Warmington aptly led a group of fellow Harley riders down the ramp and ashore in Milwaukee, where he told a crowd gathered for a welcoming ceremony that the day “was like Christmas to us in Muskegon.”

From that day, June 2, the Lake Express went on to easily exceed the first-year goal of carrying more than 100,000 passengers between Muskegon and Milwaukee by the time the inaugural season ended Oct. 31.

Cruising at a top speed of nearly 40 mph, and with a capacity of 250 passengers and 46 cars, the twin-hull catamaran makes three daily round-trips across 78 miles of Lake Michigan. Each crossing takes 2½ hours.

While the ferry has been good for local tourism, Lubar and those who envisioned the service bill it as a new transportation link between Michigan and Wisconsin. While an occasional bumpy ride can cause discomfort for some passengers when the waves pick up, the ferry enables leisure and business travelers to save time by avoiding the delays and congestion of the Chicago freeways — hence the promotional slogan, “Take the Lake.”

“From this day forward, Lake Michigan is not only a great recreational lake, but also a great expressway,” Lubar said.

The Lake Express’s launch marked a restoration of ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee after a 34-year hiatus.

Lubar believes the ferry service will spur new commercial links between the two port communities for years to come.

“We think the ramifications of this are significant for economic development on both sides of the lake,” Lubar said. “We’re connecting Wisconsin and Michigan.”

After sailing past expectations during the inaugural season, operators of the Lake Express are weighing upgrades for 2005 and, in the long term, potential expansion of the service.

In planning for the 2005 season, which will begin in April, Lake Express plans to look at service upgrades that President Ken Szallai describes as “customer service things” and “atmosphere things,” which include enhancing the ferry’s business class cabin and giving the vessel and terminals on either side of the lake a more upscale feel.

“The kernel of a very successful business is there. The seeds have been planted,” Szallai said.

And those seeds could sprout into a larger fleet of vessels crossing Lake Michigan in the years ahead.

Szallai, the former director of the Port of Milwaukee, who for years spearheaded efforts to restore cross-lake ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee, was hired in September by Lake Express to build and expand the business. Possibilities for the future are the launch of a second vessel between Muskegon and Milwaukee and extending high-speed ferry service to other ports.

“The business model calls for us to diversify into other markets and we certainly want to do that. We did not get into this just to have one ship crossing Lake Michigan,” said Szallai, who could not offer a timeframe for expansion. “As time goes on, we’ll evaluate other markets and we’ll consider those. We will go where the market tells us to go.” 

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