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  • Writer's pictureAlex Burkart

Charting New Waters: New Ferry Study Looks to Highlight a Vital Transportation Mode for the Region

Ferry study - stock photo of a vehicle transport ferry

A planning study is underway to highlight the importance of an often-forgotten but very important transportation mode: ferries.  Vehicle ferries operate in the St. Louis metropolitan region, but many residents have never ridden them or even thought about them.  

Ferries were once the only method of safely crossing a river.  In St. Louis, many families made their living on transporting horses, mules, wagons, goods, people, and eventually vehicles across a river.  Early ferries used horses or mules on each riverbank to drag a wooden raft back and forth.  These ferries were invariably named after the families, and in St. Louis, the roads that led to the ferry landing still bear the family names today, such as Tesson Ferry, Halls Ferry, Lemay Ferry, and Dougherty Ferry Roads.  Progress and technology brought about bridges to span the distance from one bank to the other, and over time, many of the ferries went by the wayside.  But not all.

Ferries can link two communities on opposite sides of a river and often save 15 to 45 minutes of travel time by not using the traditional roadways or the closest bridge. Ferries can be life-saving in times when quick access to emergencies is necessary, can save commuters hundreds of dollars a year in gas and car expenses, and can connect tourists to a river and river towns such as the Grafton Ferry. They are crucial to the river towns that are served by them, relying on the ferry service for access to daily essentials and tourism.

On the national or statewide scale today however, vehicle ferries are many times an afterthought. In Illinois for instance, ferries are not mentioned in the Long-Range Transportation Plan authored by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The Ferry Study underway hopes to change that, as well as to bring about a spotlight on operations of the ferries working in the State of Illinois.  

There is a wide range of ownership and operation of ferries just within the State.  Some are privately-owned by families who love the river and give it their heart and soul.  Many of these however, can be struggling just to make ends meet.  Boats and deck barges are expensive, and new regulations make it difficult for these private operators to take on other expenses such as the maintenance of the landings on either side of the river, or the roadways leading to them.

Other ferries are operated by the State of Illinois such as Brussels Ferry north of Grafton, or funded by a combination of states, like Cave-In-Rock Ferry between Illinois and Kentucky.  These publicly-funded ferries typically do not lack the resources to make site improvements or take on additional costs, highlighting the large disparity between the publicly- and privately-operated ferries which is one of the goals that the Study hopes to address.

Although ferries are often overlooked in the Midwest, they remain a crucial transportation mode to those who use them.  The Ferry Study to be completed this Summer will address the challenges associated with ferry operations.  

For additional information, contact Christie Voelker at America’s Central Port at

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