Battle of the Bridges

With a steady drop in border traffic at the Detroit River, why are a private businessman and a public consortium each competing vigorously to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor?
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the $60-trillion equation
The $230-million Gateway Project includes the reconstruction of I-75 and I-96, as well as new entry and exit ramps to the Ambassador Bridge and a proposed second span. Construction of the freeways and links is expected to be completed by year’s end.

In mid-January, hopes soared among public officials, including Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis and state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), whose 12th District covers 95,000 residents on the city’s southwest side, when the U.S. Department of Transportation gave preliminary environmental clearance for a public bridge in Detroit. The project seeks to acquire, clear, and relocate hundreds of people who occupy some 300 acres of residential neighborhoods, businesses, churches, and factories in an area bounded by I-75, Springwells, Campbell, and Jefferson. At the same time, the proposed new span would abut numerous neighborhoods, as well as landmarks such as Fort Wayne.

That public undertaking is competing with a private effort to build another bridge adjacent to the existing Ambassador Bridge, where $230 million in government improvements to neighboring sections of I-75 and I-96 — including a major plaza and access roads — is scheduled for completion later this year. Business tycoon Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who says he’s already spent $500 million to prepare for a new crossing on both sides of the river and will invest another $500 million to build the second span, owns the Ambassador Bridge. Moroun says the motivation to build a second span is twofold. For starters, the current bridge, completed in 1929, has a lifespan of around 100 years. The other reason is concerted competition from other ports in the United States and Canada. (The port authority in Montreal, for example, recently unveiled a $2.5-billion, 12-year expansion plan that would allow it to handle 4.5 million cargo containers annually, up from a current level of 1.5 million containers.)

Canadian officials have been exploring the establishment of a free-trade agreement with Europe that would seek to boost the transfer of goods, at the expense of the United States and Mexico. Canada has also instituted an aggressive campaign to control every border crossing it shares with the United States.

“We’ve been working for 20 years to add our span because it’s needed,” Moroun said during a recent interview at a converted school in Warren that serves as his headquarters. “We worked with federal, state, and local governments in the 1990s planning for the second span, which had to be done in tandem with the massive road improvements you’re seeing today at I-75 and I-96. That just doesn’t happen overnight. It requires tremendous time, planning, and investment. I don’t have a crystal ball, but border traffic has dropped considerably from 1999, whether you operate a bridge or a tunnel.

Adding more competition, especially when you have to get approvals from the same people who want to compete with you, strikes me as unfair and duplicitous.”

While the environmental clearance was a necessary step for the proposed public bridge, called the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), public officials haven’t said how the $4-billion project will be paid for, let alone how it will be financed. Considering border traffic across the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, and the Blue Water Bridge near Port Huron has dropped considerably from its peak in 1999, loan reviewers (including those calling for public bonds) will cast a wary eye on attempting to finance one new border crossing, let alone two. And if the public bridge can’t meet its loan payments, taxpayers will likely be on the hook to provide additional funds.

Last year, nearly 7.4 million vehicles crossed the Ambassador Bridge, down from 12.4 million in 1999, or a loss of 5 million vehicles, according to the Public Borders Operators Association. During the same 10-year period, traffic at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel reached a peak of 9.6 million vehicles in 1999. But last year, the tunnel accommodated only 4.8 million vehicles. Traffic at the Blue Water Bridge showed a similar trend — it reached a high of 6.0 million vehicles in 2000, but it’s experienced a mostly downward trend since then. Last year, traffic was 4.9 million.

While Michigan’s seven-year recession has contributed to the drop in border traffic, flagging auto sales are another reason — along with falling market share among the Big Three automakers. The latter trends have slowed the movement of parts and components to final assembly plants in southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario. That trend, combined with heightened security measures following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that made travel between the United States and Canada more difficult, as well as the steady increase in the production of auto parts in developing countries like China (though the recent global financial meltdown has slowed manufacturing of late), have put a further strain on traffic flow.

Despite the steady drop in traffic and the huge public infrastructure investment put in motion in the 1990s to provide access to a planned second span of the Ambassador Bridge, Tlaib and other politicians are rushing forward to encourage the construction of a public bridge. While it’s difficult for anyone to argue that steadily falling traffic patterns warrant the addition of a third border crossing in Detroit (recall the government already paid millions of dollars to improve access to the Ambassador Bridge), Tlaib doesn’t seemed moved.

In a recent open letter to the community, Tlaib explained she was working to protect her constituents from the Detroit International Bridge Co., one of the many companies Moroun owns. Tlaib, who took office in January, writes that she has “demanded that the [freeway and bridge] project’s final form reflect its original intent — to keep bridge traffic off our surface streets.” The letter doesn’t explain how that goal would be accomplished, given the numerous businesses in the area that rely on truck deliveries via local roads, be it automotive parts plants, grocery stores, or restaurants. And not all of the trucks come from the Ambassador — delivery trucks may arrive from the tunnel, Lansing, Toledo, or various other points of entry. What’s more, truck traffic in the area is largely confined to major roads such as Fort and Vernor, not to residential streets.

There’s also no discussion of the local truck traffic that would be generated by the public bridge proposal that Tlaib has been working on — which, if built, would be located just one mile west of the Ambassador. Trucks would still need to access that bridge from local streets, and the same businesses would need deliveries, regardless of where the goods come from.

Whatever the motivation, it’s clear Tlaib doesn’t support the addition of a second span of the Ambassador Bridge. In her recent letter to the community, she wrote: “We know, as do all our neighbors, the years of frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness, and rage that grow from knowing what it is to live in the shadow of that towering monstrosity that we call The Bridge. We know the injustice of sharing our neighborhood with the worst neighbors in all of Detroit — The Detroit International Bridge Company.”

In a recent interview, Tlaib was more pragmatic, saying she’d support the second span “if the federal government approves a final environmental-impact clearance and the bridge company gets all the necessary approvals from Canada.” But she adds that the bridge company is difficult to deal with because it’s a private concern. “We can’t issue an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) [request], and all I’m doing is trying to protect our residents and businesses.”

the $60-trillion equation
Ambassador Bridge. The proposed $1 billion second span, along with new freeway connections (in blue), would be complemented by new riverfront parks and a causeway (in green and yellow). The Detroit International Bridge Co., owned by business mogul Manuel “Matty” Moroun, also wants to establish better connections to the Port of Detroit (red circle), of which it is an equity partner.

Tlaib also complains about the pollution generated in the area by the trucks that cross over the Ambassador Bridge (though she never mentions the tunnel or the trucks that arrive from elsewhere to handle local deliveries). She says she’s hopeful the EPA will require that greater pollution restrictions be put in place at the Ambassador Bridge, but the federal government has already been quite active in reducing emissions from nitrogen oxides and particulate matter generated from petroleum-based engines. Beginning with the 2007 model year, almost all of the petroleum-based diesel fuel in North America was converted to a standard called ultra-low sulfur diesel. According to EPA estimates, the new diesel fuel standards have reduced nitrogen-oxide emissions by 2.6 million tons per year, while soot and particulate matter dropped by 110,000 tons annually.

the $60-trillion equation
Detroit River International Crossing. The $4-billion proposal planned by federal, state, and regional governments envisions a bridge and plaza in a roughly 300-acre area one mile west of the Ambassador Bridge. The proposal would require acquisition and demolition of numerous factories, churches, businesses, and residences in an area bounded roughly by I-75, Springwells, Jefferson, and Campbell.

Security is another factor Tlaib cites for building a public bridge, but she adds that any government or private facility that allows public usage is a target. In fact, she wishes the proposed public bridge (as well as the Ambassador) weren’t in her district because the community won’t derive any benefits from it. “All I’m asking is that the bridge company follow all of the rules, no matter if they’re working with the federal government, the state, Canada, the city of Windsor, or the city of Detroit,” she says.

Another problem with the bridge, she says, is that Moroun’s company hasn’t pulled all the necessary permits to expand the crossing, as well as adding a plaza, gas station, and duty-free shop. City officials say they’re looking into the matter, along with reports that Moroun shut down a local street without approvals. Ambassador Bridge officials say they’ve received all of the necessary approvals to date. But as a general rule, the city doesn’t always issue permits on time because of a lack of sufficient labor and other matters.

Other politicians and business leaders in the region and state offer different opinions surrounding the two bridge projects. Gov. Jennifer Granholm says she’ll support whichever border crossing manages to gain public approvals. So does Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. But Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson says he favors the construction of a public bridge, and last July, he held a news conference with Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis to drive home the point. Patterson says he favors the public bridge because it will help ease congestion at the border.

Congestion has been a hot topic on both sides of the border, but the problem isn’t always because of the crossing itself. Rather, added security following 9/11, along with the lack of federal staffing at inspection booths, has contributed to backups leading to the bridge and tunnel. Critics of the Ambassador Bridge have often cited congestion at the border crossing to justify a new public bridge, but the real problem appears to be insufficient staffing.

“If the federal governments (on both sides of the border) would properly staff inspection booths — and they’ve improved on that of late — the congestion would be minimal,” says Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co. “We don’t handle the inspections; we don’t tell anyone how long they should take, but we shouldn’t be blamed for causing the congestion, nor should it be used as justification to build a public bridge to compete against us.”

To help alleviate congestion, the bridge company, in cooperation with the U.S. and Canadian governments, opened what are called Advanced Border Processing Centers in recent years, which allow truckers to submit their loading documents and other materials at a remote location away from the bridge (or tunnel). Currently, there are three such centers, one each in Detroit and Windsor (for local traffic), and another in London, Ontario (for longer routes). More could be added in the future, in cities such as Lansing, Jackson, or Toledo.

“The basic system works like this,” Moroun says. “As a trucker, you submit your documents to a government worker, say, in London. As long as those documents are in order, you can proceed to the bridge, which takes around 90 minutes or so. While you’re driving, the government is in communication with the inspectors, so that when you arrive at the bridge and proceed to a booth, your clearance is approved — again, as long as all your paperwork is in order. That system has really speeded up things at the border.”

Select border crossings around the country have also implemented a program where low-risk shipments, along with the companies they originate from, are pre-approved. Adopted in 2002, this system has also helped reduce border-crossing times.

There’s another reason the bridge company is pushing for approvals for a second span. Apart from the age of the existing bridge, increased competition from Montreal and other ports of call are meant to circumvent border crossings in Detroit. That’s why the bridge company, along with the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, Nicholson Terminal & Dock Co., and the city of Detroit, struck a deal to operate the Port of Detroit in 2005.

Under the 25-year deal, the Ambassador Port Corp., a subsidiary of Moroun’s trucking company Central Transport, became an equity partner in the project. So far, the effort has paid dividends in reducing overall shipping costs in the region. Still, the struggling world economy has affected trade at the port of late, as well as at most other shipping facilities. In 2007, about 750,000 tons of materials were shipped through the port. Last year, just over 300,000 tons were handled, says John K. Kerr, the port authority’s director of economic development and grants management.

“Down the road, as we build the second span, we would move to better integrate the bridge and the port as it relates to intermodal traffic,” Stamper says. Located at the foot of Clark Street, the port, along with neighboring rail lines, allows for the transfer of cargo containers between ships, rail cars, and trucks. “By better integrating intermodal traffic, we can reduce delivery costs for everyone,” Stamper adds. “We want what’s best for the region and state — just like everyone else.”

Tlaib says she fears southwest Detroit will be overrun by industry if the Ambassador Bridge is allowed to proceed with its plans. But she acknowledges that the factories and freight operators that began lining the river more than a century ago created the jobs that spurred the development of neighboring homes, stores, and restaurants. “It’s been very difficult to deal with the bridge company,” she says, “but I’m still trying to do what’s right for my community.”

Detroit River International Crossing

Setting the Record Straight

From ambassadorbridge.com

On February 19, President Barack Obama will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will likely encourage U.S. support for the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC). The Ambassador Bridge is located between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and carries 26 percent of the commerce between the U.S. and Canada. It is privately owned and operated without the need for federal or state taxpayer dollars.

A privately funded enhancement span of the Ambassador Bridge, currently planned would create much needed jobs in the Detroit area and can be commenced within 60 days and completed within 30 months of approval from Canada. A new span at the Ambassador Bridge has been an integral part of the Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project for more than a decade, and will maximize the on-going public infrastructure investment of over $230 million.

The DRIC is an unnecessary, “bi-national” effort driven by Canadian interests that would be located about one mile from the Ambassador Bridge. It would cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, take years to build and devastate the important Detroit community of Delray.

Frequently Asked Questions

Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC)

From ambassadorbridge.com

Is another international bridge crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, necessary right now?

The proposed Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project is duplicative, untimely and unnecessary – viable border crossings already exist in the region. The U.S. Congress and the state of Michigan have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve these crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge, Blue Water Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, all of which are well below capacity and equipped to meet future traffic needs.

The DRIC is an unnecessary, bi-national project driven by Canadian interests that would be located just about one mile from the Ambassador Bridge and would cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, take years to build and devastate the important community of Delray in Detroit.

The only reason that the Ambassador Bridge owner is building its new bridge span is to replace its current 80-year-old structure and use the existing roadways and new highway connections just as the Gateway Project has intended for more than a decade.

Why would the U.S. spend scarce taxpayers dollars on the DRIC?

Investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the DRIC for planning and construction simply diverts money from other needed projects that could employ citizens of Detroit within weeks or months, rather than years. The taxpayers of Michigan and Ontario – not transportation planners – will foot the bill of about $3 billion for a new bridge, new inspection plaza and new connections to regional freeways, and then for operations and upkeep thereafter.

The Ambassador Bridge, on the other hand, is privately owned and operated and is currently being enhanced through private funding creating much-needed jobs in the depressed Detroit area. Upon final approval from Canada, the project can be commenced within 60 days and completed in 30 months.

The Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project, a $230 million publicly funded project creating a new interchange and customs plaza connecting the existing and second span of the bridge to I-75 in Detroit is already underway and will be completed next year. In addition, the U.S. Congress and the Michigan Department of Transportation have appropriated more than $430 million to improve the existing Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ontario.

If traffic volumes have been steadily decreasing, why do we need a new bridge, especially one so close to the existing crossings?

The rationale for the DRIC is based on outdated and flawed traffic projections that predict sharp traffic growth, even though actual traffic volumes have been steadily declining since 1999, and existing bridges and tunnels are functioning well below capacity.

U.S. taxpayers have already invested more than $660 million to improve traffic connections to existing crossings with the understanding that Canada would make complementary investments and improvements in their crossing connections, but the Canadian government has not made good on their 2002 pledge to invest $300 million in improvements.

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge have already constructed a new customs plaza – doubling the inspection capacity. Cross-border traffic is expected to improve significantly as these facilities are fully staffed by the government.

Won’t it take years before Detroit would see the economic impact of the DRIC?

Under a best-case scenario, the DRIC calls for property acquisition in 2009, commencement of construction in 2010, and the opening of the border crossing in 2014.

The privately financed Ambassador Bridge Expansion Project, however, can be completed within 30 months of approvals. More than 20,000 jobs will be created over the next two decades and nearly 4,000 jobs within the first year.

What are the improvements being made to the Ambassador Bridge?

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are spending more than a billion dollars in private funds to replace the existing four lanes with six new lanes. Their investment has already included more than $250 million to construct a new customs plaza and for improved traffic connections.

What environmental and other impact will there be on the neighborhoods surrounding the DRIC?

Building the DRIC in the proposed location would virtually destroy the minority and low-income community of Delray, requiring:

• Condemnation of 170 acres of land and 257 homes
• Relocation of 43 businesses and hundreds of jobs
• Destruction of five churches and several community parks and playgrounds
• Destruction of several historic properties
• Three-quarters of the displaced residents would be minorities

More than 50 local community groups including the NAACP and the Hispanic Business Alliance have expressed their concerns with the DRIC – and support for the Ambassador Bridge. They have also raised questions about the potential impact that increased traffic resulting from the project and associated infrastructure will have on their local community and the effect on efforts to revitalize the surrounding racially-diverse neighborhoods. Predominately white neighborhoods were removed from the DRIC study as potential locations for the bridge at the insistence of certain Michigan politicians, sacrificing the minority neighborhood of Delray in favor of wealthier white neighborhoods.

There is also concern about the potential health effects from diesel truck emissions for community residents and school children whose classrooms and recreational facilities are adjacent to the proposed customs plaza.

The Ambassador Bridge Expansion Project has been planned in a thoughtful way to minimally impact area residents and the environment. Property has been secured on both sides of the river, effectively making a minimal impact on homes and relocations when building starts. The historic Canadian Sandwich Town in Windsor, Ontario, will be preserved and, because the new span’s main towers are designed to be on land, there is no environmental impact on the river or impediment to navigation.

Brian Masse’s Letter to the Coast Guard

March 17, 2009

United States Coast Guard
Ninth District Headquarters
Department of Homeland Security

I am writing this letter today to ensure that United States Coast Guard (USCG) administrators have a comprehensive understanding of the process of approvals and permits the Ambassador Bridge Company has to obtain in Canada before any construction can begin on the second span.

The Ambassador Bridge Company has applied and submitted for an Environmental Assessment (EA) of their Second Span project (SSP) which is being conducted by Transport Canada, a department of the federal government. The consultation process, which began on April 5, 2007, could take up to 18 months to complete had it been properly pursued. The Ambassador Bridge Company has not responded to Transport Canada’s requests for further information. As of today, the process has been stalled at this stage.

Once the EA is concluded, and assuming it is successful for the proponent, the proponent must then apply for the necessary permits to build their span. These include: 1. permit under the Navigable Waters Act – from Transport Canada; and 2. permit from Windsor Ports Authority essentially allowing the span to cross over federal lands. It is difficult to speculate on the timeframe for these permits. An additional consideration is that these permits must be applied for and approved consecutively Rot concurrently.

If those permits are obtained, the Ambassador Bridge company then has to apply for Ministerial approval from the Government of Canada (through Transport Canada) to build under the International Bridges and Tunnels Act (IBTA). Under the provisions for Construction and Alteration in 1STAt a federal consultation process would then be initiated for all stakeholders including businesses, residents, and others. The consultation would have to be completed before the Government of Canada could render a decision. Again, I cannot give you timeframes for this approval as it will be most likely a significantly involved process under the Act. Furthermore, the Ambassador Bridge Company must comply with all the provisions of 1STA since all operators and owners of border, 03/17/20El9 13: ElEl 5192557913 BRIAN MASSE MP PAGE 03/03 crossings between Canada and the United States fall under the authority of the Act. This is specifically referred to in the Transitional Provisions Clause 57 of the IBTA which states “For greater certainty, this Act applies in respect of any proposal for the construction or alteration of an international bridge or tunnel that has been submitted to any department, agency or regulatory authority of the Government of Canada before the coming into force of this section. ”

If Ministerial approval is granted, the Ambassador Bridge Company then has to apply for and receive municipal building permits from the City of Windsor. The USCG is being asked to make a significant decision regarding the approval for the Ambassador Bridge second span project. It is necessary that all information having any bearing on this issue be available to the USCG. I also want to reiterate that the Ambassador Bridge Company’s second span project was previously submitted to the Detroit River International Crossing Study (DRIC) as a potential option to be considered for a new border crossing. It was rejected, after careful analysis on numerous grounds, as were many other proposals and plans submitted to DRIC. As you are aware the DRIC is a partnership of the US and Canadian federal governments along with the State of Michigan and the Province of Ontario. The new DRIC border crossing project is anticipated to begin construction late this year with its Canadian location in the Brighton Beach area of Windsor having widespread community support.

In this correspondence, I hope I have added not only facts but further clarity to this situation. Please contact my office if there is any additional information you require.

Sincerely,

Brian Masse, Member of Parliament (Windsor West)
NDP Industry, Automotive and Border Critic

Rashida H. Tlaib’s Letter to the Michigan Department of Transportation

February 20, 2009
Michigan House of Representatives
Rashida H. Tlaib
State Representative

Kirk Steudle, Director
Michigan Department of Transportation
P.O. Box 30050
Lansing, MI 48909

Dan Stamper, President
Detroit International Bridge Co,
P.O. Box 32666
Detroit, MI 48232

Dear Director Steudle and Mr. Stamper,

The Gateway Project is one of the largest transportation projects undertaken by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Gateway has cost the federal government $145 million and the State of Michigan $30 million and has resulted in the creation of over 2,000 construction jobs.

The “Purpose and Need” of Gateway consisted of removing traffic from local roads and neighborhoods. As the host of the project, Southwest Detroit has also paid a considerable sum in order to reap the rewards of a successfully executed Gateway project. The construction of Gateway required the closure of l-75 between Clark Street and Rosa Parks, completely interrupting direct entrance into the vibrant business communities in Southwest Detroit, especially those located in the heart of Mexicantown. According to the Southwest Detroit Business Association, businesses directly impacted by the construction have lost up to 30% in revenue. Traffic congestion, including commercial trucks, has tripled in local neighborhoods, especially those near Fort Street, Clark Street and Rosa Parks, causing substantial accelerated wear and outright damage to local streets. The freeway closing has also led to an increase in criminal activity, especially prostitution, My community never wrote a check, but it has invested heavily in this project’s successful completion.

As a resident of Southwest Detroit and as the representative for the people of my district, I insist that MOOT and Detroit International Bridge Company (DlBC) abide by the original design and agreement for the Gateway Project. It is imperative that the original Purpose and Need requirement for Gateway be adhered to. Due to several conversations with the City of Detroit Law Department and MDOT, I am concerned by the fact that proposals to use part of Fort Street, Service Drive, 23 rd Street and W Grand Boulevard in the final design for Gateway are being considered. Consideration of a design allowing traffic to use local roads would constitute a clear and direct conflict with the original purpose for the Gateway. My intense concern from these facts is only heightened by the fact that a redesign incorporating these changes would jeopardize the contractual integrity of the project, creating an opportunity for the federal government to request their $145 million back for the project. This could cost the State of Michigan millions, hurt future project relationships with the Federal Highway Administration, and cause untold short- and long-term injury to Michigan’s private construction contractors and their employees.

On behalf of the community I represent and the residents and businesses located in my district, I respectfully request that all involved parties agree to make the following commitments:

  • Upon the completion of Gateway, there will be no commercial (i.e. bridge) traffic on local roads.
  • There will be no acquisition and usage of City or State roads or property, without the proper authority by the designated City of Detroit departments, including, but not limited to 23rd Street, the Lodge Service Drive, W Grand Blvd, Fort Street and Riverside Park.
  • There will be an easement as agreed upon between DIBC and MOOT to Mr.Walter Lubienski ‘s private property.
  • There will be no deviation from the original agreed upon Gateway design.
  • There will be no actions that result in unnecessary and harmful delays.

I appreciate the resources and time that both 0 [BC and MOOT have put into making sure that Gateway Project is a success. I hope to hear from both parties regarding these concerns in the next two weeks. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Rashida Tlaib
State Representative
12th District, Detroit
Cc: Ron DeCook, MOOT
Kathy Wendler, SDBA
Fort Street Business Association Board Members
Hubbard Fanns Residence Council
Corktown Residence Council
House Transportation Committee

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