Bridging the border: Do we need a new bridge? (part 1)

Aug 13, 2012

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says we need a new bridge to Canada. It will mean more trade and more and better jobs. Not everyone agrees, especially the owners of the single bridge in Detroit which connects Michigan to Canada.

Eight thousand trucks a day cross the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Canada is America’s biggest trade partner. More than 16% of U.S. trade is with Canada. That’s more than China. It’s more than Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

And a huge amount of that trade crosses this single bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

"A quarter of all U.S./Canada trade, which is the largest two-way trade relationship in the world, crosses everyday an 83-year-old bridge and it will not last forever,” says the Canadian Counsel General in Detroit, Roy Norton.

Canada wants a new bridge. In fact, it wants it so badly, it’s offered to bankroll the bridge and even Michigan’s costs of building new highway connections to it.

Why? Part of it is the age of the Ambassador Bridge. When I started researching this bridge issue, I found a 1927 documentary of the construction of the Ambassador. It was a silent film. That’s how old we’re talking about.

“It’s not prudent to just wait for it no longer to be functional and then to try to organize yourselves to do something about it because it’ll take five years to build. So, we’re acting now,” said Counsel General Norton.

But, it’s not just the age of the Ambassador Bridge.

There are three other major concerns.

  • First, there’s a bottleneck on the Canadian side.

Truck traffic is forced to go through the city streets of Windsor, Ontario, past shopping malls and offices. I counted 16 stoplights between the 401 expressway and the Ambassador Bridge. That slows delivery times for trucks.

Sandy Buruah is the President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“So, all of the delays, all of the congestion that delays just-in-time delivery for companies like Ford, companies like Herman Miller is really hobbled by this old piece of infrastructure.”

Manufacturers are heavily dependent on just-in-time delivery. Getting parts and supplies delivered just before you need them is more efficient, than stockpiling inventory. Companies save money… unless parts are delayed.

At a news conference to support the idea of a new bridge, Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford talked to reporters talked about the need for a new bridge with a freeway-to-freeway connection.

“Any time you get hung up like that it costs you time and certainly costs you money. And so, this will be a huge boost to us as we send parts, power trains, and vehicles back and forth across the border,” Ford said.

At Ford’s River Rouge plant, workers assemble the F-150 pickup truck. Charlie Pryde with Ford explains how the delays cost the company as parts travel back and forth across the border.

“If you’re building one vehicle a minute, 60 vehicles an hour, and you’re gaining $25 thousand dollars an hour worth of revenue from that vehicle, if you had to close that assembly plant down for an hour, that would make you lose approximately $1.5 million worth of revenue. And that’s very difficult if not impossible to make up.”

And if manufacturers lose money, Michigan could lose jobs.

  • The second major issue is the Ambassador Bridge is the only crossing for commercial trucks. 

Most eighteen wheelers cannot use the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, because they’re too big. Another option is the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron but that’s out of the way for many businesses. Then, there’s Buffalo, New York, another manufacturing region. Buffalo is considering adding its own new bridge. There’s real concern that if Buffalo builds a bridge, it might attract trade and jobs away from Michigan.

  • The third major issue is security.

Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, border security has tightened. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley is the Snyder administration’s point man on the bridge issue. He says the way it’s set up right now, it’s risky. There’s not enough room at the Ambassador Bridge to do secondary inspections of suspicious trucks. They have to go to another site.

“It’s the honor system. Can you believe that? Where we say, ‘You have to promise you’re going to go to this next location so we can do the inspection.’”

So, building a new bridge, would include space for inspections of suspicious vehicles.

All the advantages make the new bridge sound like the deal of the century for Michigan right?

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge say it’s a boondoggle.

Mickey Blashfield is a spokesman for the Detroit International Bridge Company which owns the Ambassador. He says there’s no need for a new bridge. Traffic across the border has declined and the traffic projections compiled for the state are wildly optimistic. He says traffic and tolls won’t support a second bridge.

“We wish the traffic would definitely be there. We’d have the most cause for optimism. But, nobody builds a bridge without the anticipation of traffic. And it’s certainly not a situation of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Their studies show that.”

As for the bottleneck caused by all those stoplights on the Canadian approach to the bridge, he says surely Canada can find a much cheaper way to fix the problem than building a new bridge.

And as for the security question.

“The security issue is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Blashfield says 9-11 proved terrorists can attack multiple targets.

Recently the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel received bomb threats on different days, shutting them down. He argues another bridge would not make commerce or transit any safer.

“The existence of a government bridge only would have necessitated one more phone call to undermine its effectiveness. It would have provided no degree of reliability.”

So, the Ambassador Bridge owners say there’s no point in Canada and Michigan building a second bridge across the Detroit River downstream. But, the Ambassador Bridge owners add, with no hint of irony, they will build a second bridge right next to the Ambassador.

“It’s terribly inconsistent,” says Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley.

He says the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun and his family are contradicting themselves.

“The Morouns say a second bridge is not needed. And yet, they also say, ‘We’ll build a second bridge.’ So, they know it’s needed.”

But the Moroun’s company spokesman, Mickey Blashfield says they have a different motivation. It’s a maintenance issue for the company.

“We can continue to fix an older bridge, but at a certain point it’s more efficient to have less maintenance costs. And that’s the primary motivation for the Ambassador Bridge looking at a second span.”

But, Canadian officials don’t want a second span at the Ambassador site. It doesn’t solve the larger problems outlined above.

Make no mistake, it also is not in the financial interests of the Ambassador Bridge company to compete with another bridge for traffic and tolls, so the owners of the Ambassador Bridge are fighting every way they can think of to keep their monopoly on international trade traffic at Detroit.