Facing Traffic: Building the New International Trade Crossing

Article from the February 2014 Wire Rope Exchange
By Joe Nolan

Bridge Photo_6When we talk about the American border, most eyes turn south, down towards states like Arizona and Texas, and the line that separates them from our Mexican neighbors. When our neighbors to the north come to mind, one usually conjures images of the border in a Western state like Montana or that perennial honeymooners destination, Niagara Falls that New York shares with Canada.

However, the most unique spot on the U.S. border might be that place on the Detroit River where Motown connects to Windsor, Ontario via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge. Currently, nearly 25% of Canadian/American trade passes between Windsor and Detroit at this point making this the busiest border crossing on the continent of North America in terms of trade volume, and marking one of the biggest bi-lateral trade partnerships on the globe.

With new plans to upgrade and revamp the border-crossing, be prepared to hear a lot more about that location in the months – and years – to come. Get ready for reports that focus on careful confidence, tempered by plenty of contradictions and controversy.


The Plan

The $950 million New International Trade Crossing Bridge (NITC) will connect Detroit and Windsor with an infrastructure makeover that proponents of the project are already saying could be one of the most impactful as far as international trade is concerned. The project aims to improve business opportunities on both the Canadian and American side of the bridge as through better transportation facilitated by a state-of-the-art, publicly operated border crossing.

New International Trade Crossing Infographic by WREThe bridge is intended to be a bi-national construction project between the U.S. and Canada between the Interstate 75 on the Detroit side and the currently-being-built, Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway, on the Windsor side. The parkway will lead to the new bridge and it’s where the NITC story really begins.

The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway stretches over 11 kilometers and includes three main components: A six-lane below-grade freeway that will extend Highway 401 in Windsor; a four lane at-grade service road network which will be added on to Highway 3 in Windsor; and 300 acres of green spaces that will encompass 20 kilometers of bike and walking trails, ecological restorations sites and thousands of new, native trees and vegetation.

When it’s finished, the parkway will facilitate secure and efficient movement of people, goods and services to and from a proposed new Canadian inspection plaza and the NITC Bridge. The project will aim to separate local traffic from international traffic and eliminate stop-and-go clustering in residential areas.

Construction on the project began in 2011. Since then the parkway has generated approximately 12,000 jobs, created business opportunities, attracted investors and supported existing industry on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. The parkway is projected to be open for traffic in 2014.

At its western terminus, the Parkway will connect the NITC Bridge. The new six-lane bridge crossing the Detroit River will be constructed, operated, maintained and financed through a unique public-private partnership. A non-recourse financing deal with a private consortium will ultimately be put into place, rewarding the investors a long-term franchise to recover their investments, pay their shareholders, and pay for repairs and maintenance. After the franchise lapses, the bridge will revert to mutual State of Michigan and Canadian control. The two will then split both the profits from and the costs of operating and maintaining the structure.

The entire bridge project will include the structure itself along with two border inspection plazas, each located on either side of the river. The NITC project will also require an interchange plaza to connect the bridge’s southern terminus to the U.S. Interstate. The total estimated cost is $4 billion.


One Bridge Too Few

At a time when federal and state governments in the U.S. are increasingly looking to cut money from public spending, and at a time when the City of Detroit has literally gone bankrupt, the NITC seems to be a win-win scenario for the State of Michigan. Canada has offered the $550 million toward the cost of the interchange plaza to be paid-back via tolls from the completed bridge. An article by Jack Kohane on the Canadian Sailings website points out why the bridge is so important to the people, businesses and government in Canada:

Mark Butler, the Transport Canada spokesperson for the Windsor Gateway Project, commenting on the Government of Canada’s willingness to contribute the funds that the State of Michigan would normally be responsible for to connect the bridge to the U.S. Interstate network (up to $550 million), said “a secure and efficient Windsor-Detroit trade corridor is vitally important to the economies of Ontario and Michigan, and indeed to all of Canada and the United States,” and that “the Government of Canada remains fully committed to building a new publicly-owned crossing between Windsor and Detroit and will continue to work with the Governments of Michigan and the U.S. to deliver the new crossing.”

The new project would eliminate 20 street light intersections for international travelers heading to Detroit from Windsor, improving the flow of traffic across the border while simultaneously leaving local streets to local traffic. But, more importantly, the improved connectors, highways and bridge address a doomsday scenario that could spell economic catastrophe on both sides of the border. The 84-year-old Ambassador Bridge is the only bridge currently connecting the cities. If the bridge was damaged or attacked in some manner that halted border crossing, traffic and commerce would come to a standstill and it’s estimated that thousands of jobs and millions in revenues could be lost from even a relatively short interruption. Kokane’s article quotes former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson on the importance of keeping the border open and passable:

Colin Robertson, the former Canadian diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and former consul general in Los Angeles, strikes a dire note on his colinrobertson.ca blog. He writes: “Any interruption in traffic on this 80-year-old privately-owned bridge means layoffs of thousands in the first day and tens of thousands stretching south to the Carolinas into day two.”

Mr. Robertson says construction of the NITC should be a top priority in light of the fact that trade between Michigan and Canada increased by 43 per cent last year over 2009.


The Jobs

Of course, one of the strongest selling points for a large infrastructure project like NITC is job-generation. The bridge agreement between the U.S. and Canada calls for approximately 10,000 project construction jobs that will be split between the two countries. The plan also includes a clause that only Canadian and U.S. steel will be used in the project.

In addition, both sides of the border seem committed to marshaling local contractors and sub-contractors during various stages of the project. While the Michigan side of the NITC has yet to break ground, a number of Ontario-based companies are already partnered with the project and working on the new parkway in Windsor.

Founded in 1987, Amico began as a contractor and engineering firm based in Oldcastle, Ontario just outside of Windsor. Since that time, the company grown and diversified into an infrastructure building and design concern with a number of high profile construction contracts to its credit. A visit to their website finds a whole section dedicated to the Herb Gray Parkway including a Progress Blog featuring breaking updates on road cutting, pipe installation and wall building on the Parkway’s ramps.

Amec was founded in 1848 as a construction company in the UK. Today, Amec supplies consultancy, engineering and project management services to clients in the oil and gas, mining, clean energy, environment and infrastructure markets. Amec’s contributions to the parkway project include foundation design for all road and pedestrian bridges, tunnels, culverts, retaining walls, stormwater ponds and other critical structures on the project. AMEC is also managing geotechnical instrumentation and settlement monitoring of all permanent structures during construction as well as engaging in a number of environmental services at the site including: coordinating ecological restoration, Species at Risk mitigation measures, noise mitigation, and other related environmental mitigation input required for project compliance.

Dillon Consulting is a Toronto, Ontario based, international consulting firm that seeks to blend science, technology and management in a balanced approach to providing their client’s with satisfying solutions. For the parkway project, Dillon has dedicated over 150 members of their staff to provide professional services in highway design, bridge design, municipal services, utility re-locations, drainage, traffic staging and consultation.


The Controversy

If building the NITC is largely funded by Canada, and it’s seen as a crucial infrastructural project and job-generator, why are our northern neighbors already building their way to the border while we have yet to break ground on our side of the river? The leader of the No-NITC movement is Manuel “Matty” Moroun, a trucking industrialist who has owned the Ambassador Bridge since 1977. According to the latest Forbes list, the Moroun family is worth $1.5 billion. Some of that wealth comes from the $60 million Moroun earns annually from his bridge tolls and the estimated millions more he takes in at the duty free stores he owns at the border-crossing.

Moroun seems to have taken a carrot-and-stick approach to defending his private monopoly of the border. He’s responded to the need for more security by offering to build a floating emergency bridge that could be quickly put in place in case of an emergency. He’s also offered to add another span to his existing bridge, but the Canadians have declined to issue permits for the addition. Moroun has also tried to allay fears about the bridge’s condition, citing a 2010 study that found the bridge to be very well maintained.

On the other hand, Moroun has also played hardball with his opponents. He’s sued the governments of Canada and the State of Michigan. He’s also filed what The Windsor Star called a “massive lawsuit” against several federal departments including Homeland Security, Transportation, State and Coast Guard. Moroun claims his exclusive right to the border crossing is based on agreements signed in the 1920′s by the U.S. Congress and Canadian parliament.

But Michigan Governor Rick Snyder isn’t letting Moroun’s machinations deter him from seeing the project started on his side of the river. Snyder is quoted in The Windsor Star:

“They have lawsuits outstanding and they are likely to file more,” Snyder said. “We are just going to keep moving ahead. Our track record is very good on winning lawsuits.”

This past spring Snyder snagged a U.S. presidential permit from the Obama administration to build the Detroit corridor that will connect to the bridge. The permit was the final piece of legislation needed to begin building the American half of the project. The smoke has yet to clear on our side of the border, but when it does, the NITC Bridge seems more inevitable than ever. The latest projections estimate a ribbon cutting sometime in 2020.









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