Balancing Act

As construction advances, the Gordie Howe International Bridge raises questions, along with the coming ascent of its towers. Yes, it will benefit industry throughout a wide region, but what about southwest Detroit?
Bridging the Divide - The Gordie Howe International Bridge that will connect Detroit and Windsor is scheduled to open in late 2024. Once operational, it will compete with the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project
Bridging the Divide – The Gordie Howe International Bridge that will connect Detroit and Windsor is scheduled to open in late 2024. Once operational, it will compete with the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project

On a recent Tuesday, Bridget Espinosa was fighting the onset of her annual springtime allergies and trying not to cough too loudly in La Palapa del Parian, where she was taking a midmorning break. The name suggests a palm-thatched beach hut, but the space at 1633 Lawndale St. in Springwells Village had been used as the commissary to support a fleet of taco trucks before recently becoming, as Espinosa puts it, “a full-fledged restaurant.”

Gazing at the vivid wall murals, she ponders the question of development opportunities in southwest Detroit as construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge approaches the halfway mark. For the first time, she’s hearing details of the recent study released by the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor, an assessment of the economic impacts and opportunities that may arise after the bridge opens for use in late 2024.

Espinosa’s consulting company, Puente Cultural Integration, guides small businesses in the Hispanic community, where the hopes are to benefit from some piece of the $4.7-billion project, even during its design-build phase.

“I’ve done a lot of small business coaching and really recognize the challenges that our neighborhood faces in order for them to get contracts with agencies as large as the bridge,” Espinosa says. “There’s a huge barrier with just the paperwork (and) the red tape for a small business or an immigrant small business to access those types of contracts, right? They’re skilled, but they don’t have a back office to manage all the paperwork that’s required.”

Stretching 1.5 miles, the Gordie Howe will be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America — and the world’s seventh-longest — when it opens. Rising from a 130-acre site near the Brighton Beach Generating Station on Windsor’s riverbank, it will pass through two majestic A-shaped towers, each 720 feet in height, and swoop past Zug Island into Detroit’s Delray neighborhood, where 148 acres have been cleared for the new port of entry.

Actually, Delray, a neighborhood that sprang to life in the 1850s and was named after Molino del Rey in Mexico, was largely wiped out by the new bridge, although East Delray and West Delray still exist. From the early days, it was favored by Hungarian immigrants before becoming an industrial center due to its proximity to the convergence of the Detroit and Rouge rivers.

The neighborhood’s Mexican community began to grow a century ago, when Henry and Edsel Ford established the Rouge Industrial Complex in Dearborn, one of the largest manufacturing complexes in the world.

One of the new link’s chief merits is that, for the first time, travelers will have a freeway-to-freeway connection — a time-saver the CBI study estimates at 850,000 hours per year for the trucking industry. Leaving the Rt. Honourable Herb Gray Parkway in Windsor and climbing the bridge deck to about 138 feet over the Detroit River, travelers will find a quick connection from the 36 inspection booths to I-75. The bridge will have six traffic lanes, and in 2017 the design requirements were revised to include an 11.8-foot-wide multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Canadian government is paying for the project in a unique public-private effort that’s administered by the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, a Canadian Crown corporation. It’s structured like a private company and has a staff of about 40 people. Bridging North America, a consortium of design and construction companies, is executing the project. Funds also have been set aside for bridge operation and maintenance over the following 30 years. The WDBA will set and collect all tolls.

“It’s going to be a business in and of itself forever,” Espinosa muses. “So that was one of the things we were doing, is trying to connect especially our contractors, at this point, but print shops and other services that are needed, (and arrange) B2B connectivity with their procurement process. As of right now, I’m unaware of any small businesses in southwest Detroit that are receiving any kind of contracts or substantial business from that.”

Earlier this year, WDBA offered Delray homeowners up to $20,000 each from a $4-million fund dedicated to fundamental repairs. In a construction update, WDBA spokesman Mark Butler points to progress on the Canadian port of entry, with inspection booths and other buildings taking shape. Because of demolitions and soil remediation, the U.S. side isn’t as far ahead, but that’s to be expected.

Salute to Progress - The footings on the U.S. side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge are nearing completion. In the coming months, the span will be erected. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project
Salute to Progress – The footings on the U.S. side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge are nearing completion. In the coming months, the span will be erected. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project

“We’re making planned progress,” Butler says. “All together, we’re on target. We didn’t know a year ago that we would be working remotely when the pandemic broke.” He adds there have been “challenges” with such things as delivery of materials, but a “flexible regime” has let work move ahead.

In a construction process that started Oct. 5, 2018, by digging out the site and moving utility lines, it’s been hard to see much progress so far. But footings for the towers on both sides of the river are complete, bridge reconstruction on three Detroit streets will wrap up by midsummer, and before too long the Gordie Howe’s towers themselves will start to become visible as the cranes crawl up to an ultimate operating height of 822 feet. Altogether, the construction will require about a half-million tons of concrete, 22,000 tons of steel, and 5,000 tons of cables.

Meanwhile, ramp work and pedestrian-bridge construction is underway as part of the new interchange between the U.S. port of entry and I-75, causing inconvenience for already-dubious locals.

“There’ll be skepticism until the bridge is open,” says Frank Venegas Jr., chairman and CEO of the Ideal Group, a multifaceted construction business which has its headquarters at 2525 Clark Ave. in southwest Detroit. “One of the other things they’re going to see is a lot of traffic, and a lot of roads being closed and waiting to be fixed.” Despite the nuisance, Venegas is a big fan of the Gordie Howe, saying, “I can’t remember the last time you’d say that the Ambassador Bridge was a good way to go to Canada, because of the truck traffic.”

In fact, amid many uncertainties, the Ambassador Bridge will continue to operate for decades to come. In the last decade it has benefited from a $100-million modernization program that included the installation of a firefighting system.

“We have plans to invest another $40 million to expand and modernize the customs plaza in Canada,” says Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co. Controlled by the Moroun family, DIBC has owned the 92-year-old bridge since 1979, when — at the time — it outbid Warren Buffet on the sale of the crossing. “Our goal is to offer the best service available for international commerce and travelers,” Stamper adds.

He notes that cross-border traffic has “steadily decreased over the past 20 years” and “macro trends in the regional economy do not point toward significant future traffic growth.” The latter is due to a regional move away from manufacturing and the rise of Mexican industry. Additionally, as auto parts contribute a significant share of goods transferred over the Detroit River, the increasing production of electric vehicles, with their fewer internal parts, will affect demand for freight services. “In sum,” Stamper says, “we see cross-border traffic remaining static, with potential downward pressure for the foreseeable future.”

Referring to the CBI’s recent study, which he says was read “with interest,” he recalls a 1996 study by the State of Michigan that also touted opportunities for development in southwest Detroit. “We have significant land holdings in and around the geographical areas discussed in the study, and we develop such facilities for our own businesses and for third parties,” Stamper says. “We see business opportunities in this space, as well as further opportunities to cooperate with stakeholders, and we hope they come to fruition.”

The study by five authors, officially the Gordie Howe International Bridge and the Bi-National Great Lakes Economic Region: Assessing Economic Impacts and Opportunities, was commissioned by WDBA. From its 68 pages emerges an awareness of the importance of trucks. One could hardly be blamed for coming away with the impression the Gordie Howe International Bridge is intended more for trucks and industrial needs, and that cars are incidental. Manufactured goods account for more than half the cross-border shipments of both countries.

“More trucks already cross the Ambassador Bridge in this corridor than at any other Canada-U.S. crossing,” the report states. Supply chains can be delicate, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, and must be kept intact for just-in-time deliveries to assembly plants as far away as Kentucky and Tennessee. “This calls for more than one bridge to provide redundancy,” the report continues. Another issue — delays — is among the Gordie Howe’s chief selling features. With direct freeway connections, there will be no more grinding along over surface streets. Larger inspection plazas will be more technologically advanced. Easier and quicker crossings will save billions of dollars over many years.

From his office at the University of Windsor, before the pandemic year of working at home, Bill Anderson could watch trucks in the inspection plaza at the Ambassador Bridge. The political science professor also directs the Cross-Border Institute, and his name is at the top of the report. While working remotely, his mind stayed on trucks.

polar express The support podium for the Canadian side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge highlights the nation’s culture. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Projcet
polar express
The support podium for the Canadian side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge highlights the nation’s culture. // Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Projcet

“Our research is very much about trucks,” Anderson says. “I think what people don’t realize is, when you look at that line of trucks going in both directions, through the Ambassador Bridge and down Huron Church Road (into Windsor), you’re seeing one of the most significant trade flows on earth. So for somebody like me who studies transportation and international trade, it’s one of the best locations you could possibly be in. Not everybody loves to watch trucks, but I do.”

The next thought is about what happens to the trucks. “The thing is,” he says, “you’re bringing so many trucks together that it creates opportunities for cross-dock facilities and cold-storage facilities, things like that.” The report spells out what transportation, distribution, and logistics, or TDL, can entail. For example, truck depots are homes to commercial carriers. Intermodal facilities allow the transfer of shipping containers between truck and rail. Warehouses and cold storage serve as temporary destinations. Service plazas allow trucks to refuel and drivers to refresh. Customs brokers and freight-forwarders keep the goods moving.

“The people operating those supply chains across the border, what types of economic services can be beneficial to them?” Anderson asks. And as bridge access routes are realigned, new TDL development will make sense. But the report cautions that “concerted and coordinated effort by public and private sector actors” should control the development. It recommends establishing a new coordinating institution on each side of the river, to prevent service overlaps. “Until such new private-public institutional arrangements are in place, the TDL opportunity cannot be transformed into substantial economic benefit,” it concludes. Furthermore, even before coordinating institutions are set up, an ad hoc committee should be formed to create an “action plan.” Committee members should come from both countries. The membership would be drawn from community and business groups, industrial executives, and economic development agencies. Government officials and infrastructure experts would also be welcome.

Of utmost importance, Anderson says, is to avoid building “giant distribution centers on spec.” He thinks of instances in Canada when government initiatives to create activities clusters ended in failure. “I have a conscience about that. I don’t want to see a white elephant 20 years from now and say, ‘Yeah, that was my idea.’ You gotta make sure the market demands this.”

These aspects of the CBI study strike a chord with Steve Tobocman. A southwest Detroit resident, Tobocman is founder and executive director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit agency that strives to help integrate immigrants into the community and economy. From 2003 to 2008, he represented the 12th district in the Michigan Legislature, serving on the House Transportation and Commerce committees. His response to the CBI report comes in impassioned torrents, as his terms in Lansing coincided with a Michigan Department of Transportation study recommending a publicly owned bridge.

“For many years I was the only state legislator that attended any of the planning meetings,” Tobocman says. “Indeed, I think there’s a lot of soundness in this new report. Having a freeway or crossing in your district and having a bunch of trucks moving through isn’t necessarily a benefit; it actually can create pollution, particularly if there’s idling times. That’s a real threat to health, and that’s what we have with the current Ambassador Bridge.”

Well-managed traffic could be an asset, he reflects, but only if some of it stops beyond the toll plaza. The value — jobs and tax revenue — comes from “opening the boxes” in an assembly plant or advanced logistics facility. “This neighborhood, we’re very aware of that, and in fact saw that with the border crossing at the Ambassador Bridge and sought to create a welcome center.”

The result was the FREC, the Ford Resource and Engagement Center, which opened in 2013 in the Mexicantown Mercado. The center offers services such as legal assistance and tax preparation, relays education and job initiatives, and presents cultural activities. Before that, while still in the state Legislature, Tobocman sponsored HB 6150 to establish a supply-chain commission within the Department of Treasury. The 15-member commission was to advise the governor and state agencies on strategies for better planning, implementation, and control of materials and services. Two commission goals were the elimination of “points of friction at the borders” and “the adoption of efficiencies.” A revised version of the bill passed in the House and Senate, and was signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm early in 2009.

“The idea was that we had not thought very strategically as a state about the TDL industries and the other related industries to transportation,” Tobocman says. “We had these debates about the infrastructure that I didn’t think were tied to the tax base and other things alluded to in that study, and that we needed to get ahead of that and bring transportation planners together with industry leaders.”

For such reasons, he sees timeliness in the CBI’s study, especially as greater technological innovation lies just ahead in logistics. “That is the future, and it doesn’t look exactly the way it looked even 25, 30 years ago, where it was all about getting a plant located in our community.”

After opening for service in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge — and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel soon afterward — hastened the demise of the Detroit & Windsor Ferry Co. On the final sailing of the D&W’s flagship, Cadillac, in 1938, some 2,500 passengers boarded to say good-bye, and passenger service was never restored. When the Gordie Howe opens in 2024, it may kill off the last remaining vehicle ferry plying the half-mile-wide strait.

Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project
Courtesy of the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project

The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry has operated since 1990. At 7 a.m. every day, the MV Stormont, a 75-foot harbor tug, leaves the Detroit Terminal at 1475 Springwells Court, just north of the River Rouge and Zug Island. It tows a flat barge on a 20-minute run, delivering oversize vehicles and those carrying explosive, flammable, radioactive, and corrosive substances — which are banned from the existing bridge and tunnel — to the Windsor Terminal slightly downriver. After 40 minutes, it departs Windsor, returning to Detroit. Five daily round trips are made.

“We’re very much a niche player,” Gregg Ward, DWTF’s president, says one evening as he’s just arriving home in Dearborn. “We don’t compete with the Ambassador Bridge or the Detroit-Canada Tunnel. We transport what isn’t allowed on the bridge. We do a lot of the windmill towers, a lot of the heavy equipment. It’s a very simple service, kind of 4,000-year-old technology, Cleopatra pushing across the Nile.” No passengers are allowed; the service confines itself to 40 or 50 trucks daily out of the approximately 8,000 that cross the border.

The longest rig the ferry has handled was 235 feet, with the trailer system bearing a stamping press for an automotive plant. Because of security constraints, Ward can say little about what’s being transferred, but refers to “a very expensive” safety and security program. “After 9/11, we were one of the first companies in the U.S. to get a port security grant. We built a software system where we give U.S. Customs and Border Protection an advance — everybody who’s coming across, the companies, the cargo.”

The truck ferry’s fate depends upon whether hazardous materials will be allowed to pass over the Gordie Howe, a matter that’s still to be determined. With pedestrians and cyclists as part of the mix, what sort of emergency response would be effected? “We’re assuming they’ll figure it out and they’ll take hazardous material, and in that case, we’ll be done,” Ward says. “And that’s OK. I’m a great supporter of Gordie Howe. I think the redundancy and resiliency aren’t an argument. It’s a factual need of the manufacturing society that we live in. How do you not have a resilient transportation system?”

Ward hasn’t noted “a lot of economic bump yet” from the Gordie Howe project, but expresses the desire to “be of service to those that are bringing the larger cargoes to the project.” At the same time, it’s natural for people to think ahead, trying to come up with something.

“What should I be putting in?” Bridget Espinosa, of Puente Cultural Integration, asks herself. “What would be a viable business for people who are on their bikes or walking?” An obvious move was to take advantage of a vacant property at Junction Avenue and West Fort Street, right in the path of the Gordie Howe, and enlist some clients in starting a food-truck court called Food on Fort. “We created a simple website for them, helped set up their social media. We did a pilot last fall to test out the waters, see if it worked. The goal, come spring, is to launch Food on Fort and be able to service the bridge employees for now, and then eventually have some actual traffic coming through there.”

Frank Venegas, whose Ideal Group already does steel fabrication on the bridge job, foresees unexpected development possibilities — and some neighborhood consolidation to go with them. “I still think the most important deal is now, we have this bridge. It really extends out to Mexicantown, and comes in over there with Delray. That area, it needs some help, and I believe the bridge will do that.”

He knows of “a lot of land” in southwest Detroit. “You’re going to see more money than you anticipate — it’s going to be the bank lenders,” he says, drawing from his insider’s status as a member of Huntington Bank’s regional board. “I think you’ll see banks down there. I think you’ll see stores. The dream of what it could be — I just know that when you get off a bridge, you gotta to go somewhere.”

Alan Ackerman, a partner in the law firm Ackerman and Ackerman in Bloomfield Hills, which specializes in eminent domain and condemnation issues, says he doesn’t have a problem with the new bridge, but he notes the Canadian government for years slowed down truck traffic on the Ambassador Bridge by not staffing all of the inspection booths.

“In the mid-1990s, the Michigan Department of Transportation worked hand in hand with the Ambassador Bridge to provide for new entry ramps and infrastructure as part of an overall reconstruction of I-75 in that area,” Ackerman says. “But once 9/11 came, the State of Michigan and the Canadian government changed their tunes and they began to literally put up roadblocks to the Ambassador Bridge.

“(The late) Matty Moroun bought the Ambassador Bridge fair and square (in 1979), and the State of Michigan, the Canadian government, and anyone else could have bid on it, but they didn’t. Having two bridges is good overall, and it remains to be seen how they will compete. I hope there will be enough traffic for both of them. The best thing businesses and governments can do is work together to get as many jobs as possible on both sides of the border.”