By DANNY LAYNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — An effort to create a new Michigan-Canada link somewhere between the St. Clair and Detroit rivers or to expand and improve existing international crossings is steadily moving forward.
After a series of informal open houses in Detroit and Canada, where ideas for relieving traffic congestion at three border crossings were pitched, the public is getting a look at several proposals that may become a reality within a decade. Getting one government to agree across party lines on any long-term project is a bureaucratic achievement.
Getting four governments to undertake a two-year transportation study addressing the improvement of traffic flows between two international neighbors is almost a modern-day miracle.
That has been the challenge for a binational partnership exploring new ideas for easing the traffic woes experienced when crossing between Canada and Michigan.
The Canada-U.S.-Ontario-Michigan Border Transportation Partnership, a consortium of four governments, was formed earlier this year to look at the long- and short-term transportation needs in the Windsor-Detroit corridor.
A $4.5 million contract for the planning and needs assessment study was awarded to USR Coleman Sherman, an Ontario-based consulting company that has undertaken more than 30 environmental impact and design projects.
USR Coleman Sherman is the prime consultant of the partnership that includes representatives from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Transportation Canada, Michigan Department of Transportation, Transport Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
The study is the first of a six-stage planning and environmental process that continues through 2003. The public, particularly people in the southeastern part of Michigan and the western part of Ontario are included in a series of informal discussions that provide information and solicit input.
Public information sessions have been held in Detroit, Windsor and elsewhere in Ontario. Each five-hour event gave project partners the opportunity to present their ideas publicly and for the public to respond.
“These meetings are opportunities for the public to get involved in the planning process,” said Robert Morosi, MDOT’s regional communications spokesman in Detroit.
The study examines existing and future cross-border transportation concerns at the Windsor-Detroit and the Sarnia-Port Huron interchanges. The study also focuses on the overall transportation network formed between the two countries by interstate freeways, provincial highways, railway corridors and waterways
Transportation officials on both sides are projecting that the international crossings linking Michigan and Canada will be operating at full capacity within a decade. By then, a decision on an alternate route will have been made and construction begun, Morosi said.
“By 2010, the Ambassador Bridge and the Windsor Tunnel will be at capacity and won’t be able to handle any more traffic” Morosi said. “Some people think it’s that way now, but it’s not.”
The Bluewater Bridge at Port Huron is expected to experience the same increase in traffic flows, he added.
Michigan already has two of the busiest International crossings at Port Huron and Detroit, according to MDOT Director Greg Rosine.
The “gateway project,” as he called it, is a look at a direct connection from federal highways on the U.S. side to provincial highways on the Canadian side. Variances in Canadian and U.S. federal law will permit the direct link between the nations’ highway systems, Rosine said.
“My primary concern is that any new crossing has a direct connection to interstates on both sides,” Rosine said.
MDOT’s biggest expenses for Michigan roadways are in the southeastern part of the state, the MDOT director said. “We have the most people there, with the oldest transportation infrastructure and it’s our biggest investment.”
About 87 percent of Canada’s trade exports flow into the United States and about 41 percent, in value, of that trade crosses the Ambassador or Blue Water bridge. Much of it is automotive related. The Detroit River crossings handle more than twice as much freight value and weight as the Blue Water Bridge crossing, according to an executive summary prepared for the Transportation Partnership members.
The Windsor-Detroit corridor also handles about 30 percent of Quebec’s exports, according to the Canadian Industry Minister’s office.
About 9,500 commercial trucks cross the Ambassador Bridge daily, according to MDOT statistics, and annual commercial traffic across all three crossing sites doubled, to almost 5.3 million, in the last decade. It is expected to triple within the next 20 years.
The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest, privately owned international border crossing in the United States. Commercial traffic, plus commuter vehicles, are subject to tolls and customs and immigration inspections on both sides.
Proposals under consideration include the $400 million construction of a second span for the Ambassador Bridge, a $14 million addition of passenger and truck ferries or a $600 million conversion of twin railway tunnels into a “commercial truck only” corridor beneath the Detroit River.
With more than 400,000 rail cars passing through the existing Detroit rail tunnels annually, the conversion of the 1.6-mile twin rail tunnels for truck use would require construction of a new railway tunnel, Morosi said.
A separate railway tunnel under the St. Clair River, farther north between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, was opened by the Canadian National railroad in 1995.
Canadian National, which purchased the Detroit River Tunnel with the Canada Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1985, sold half its interest in the tunnel to Borealis Transportation Infrastructure Trust earlier this year. This new Detroit River Tunnel Partnership indicates it can raise $450 million of the $600 million project from private-sector sources, but would need $150 million in Canadian government funds.
The Windsor-Detroit TradeWay Proposal, or tunnel modification project, is promoted as more than just the conversion of the twin-tube tunnel into a state-of-the-art two-lane truck route. It also includes the construction of a segregated two-lane truck route from (Canadian) Highway 401 and U.S. Interstate 75, a modernized “pre-clearance” customs facility and the construction of a new high-clearance rail tunnel accessible to all rail users.
The advantages of the proposed tunnel modification include the use of an existing traffic corridor, a projected completion date of 2007, added cost savings through private investments, an alternative route in the event of security concerns at other border crossing, and a renewed emphasis on increased commercial trade.
Plans already include the expansion and improvement of existing bridge and tunnel facilities, Morosi said.
At the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, for instance, the tunnel begins and ends in the central business districts of both cities. Daily traffic quagmires are a primary concern to commuters and commercial haulers.
A new plaza design already is underway for the U.S. side, but drivers on Huron Church Road, on the Windsor approach, experience massive traffic congestion when there are delays at the border crossing.
The U.S. plaza at the Blue Water Bridge is also being redesigned.
But traffic patterns are not the consortium’s only concern. The effect on the hosting communities is equally important.
“We’re looking all aspects of traffic flows, including their impact on the quality of life for citizens on both sides of the border,” Morosi said. “We need the direct connections to the interstate highways because we don’t want thousands of trucks crossing the bridges or tunnels and going through residential neighborhoods.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By DANNY LAYNE