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New international trade crossing linking Canada and US

First publishedin World Highways
May 2015
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Ambassador Bridge
The vast majority of commercial traffic must use the 2.3km Ambassador Bridge. Image: Steven Kriemadis
If you are American, it's a free bridge. If you are Canadian, it's a major PPP project. David Arminas reports

The Detroit River is short, only 45km, and narrow in places, less than 1km. Around a quarter of the annual $658 billion Canada-US trade crosses over the river. That’s $160 billion worth of goods trucked each year between Detroit in the US state of Michigan and the Canadian city of Windsor in the province of Ontario - the Windsor-Detroit Corridor.

There are several types of crossings, but the vast majority of commercial traffic must use the 2.3km Ambassador Bridge (see box). A new bridge was initially proposed in 2004. Now, after decades of increasing congestion and crossing delays on the Ambassador Bridge, a $2.1 billion bridge 3.5km downriver is being planned.

To improve things further, the new bridge will have access roads to two major Interstate highways to bypass the centres of Detroit and the new Herb Gray Parkway out of Windsor (see box).

If all goes well, a new bridge should be open by 2020, although its design is not finalised. Only this month was it named the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Howe, now 87, is a Canadian ice hockey player who joined the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League in 1946 and over the next 25 years helped the team win four league championships.

However, not everyone is pleased by the prospect of a new bridge, including the private owner of the Ambassador Bridge who, along with other groups who suggest that cost overruns will lumber the state's taxpayers with the bill for years to come.

A new bridge would not only span a river, it would cross the cultural divide between Canada and the United States when it comes to investing in large infrastructure projects. The focus of the new bridge has been its proposed public private partnership contract – PPP or P3. Many US states are wrestling with the question: to what extent should government and the private sector be jointly involved in major infrastructure works?

What the new Detroit-Windsor bridge will not be, is a joint US-Canada project. It will be wholly owned by the Canadian government, right down to the connection with Michigan state’s Interstate highways – works that reportedly will cost $500 million. It will cost Michigan nothing, claims the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority.
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Ambassador Bridge
Top of the voters against the bridge was none other than the man whose family owns the existing Ambassador Bridge Image: Steven Kriemadis
To manage the project from design and procurement to operation, the Canadian government set up the WDBA, a non-profit Canadian agency. Only in March did the WDBA get the bridge’s final financial wrinkle ironed out. Canada, or rather the yet-to-be-appointed private sector partners under a PPP contract, will now pay $250 million for a major US customs post on the bridge. As World Highways went to press, the US Federal Government was still wrangling over whether they would foot the bill for their own customs staff and was looking to shift it, too, onto the PPP deal.

Despite opposition at state and local level, Michigan state governor Rick Snyder remains a staunch backer of the bridge. In a June 2012 Facebook posting, he gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to the general agreement just signed between Michigan and the Canadian government to go ahead with the New International Trade Crossing, as it was then called in the US. He wrote that the NITC is vital for protecting state jobs, creating around 10,000 directly related to the project “and it won’t cost Michigan taxpayers one penny”, he wrote.

“Today, we rely on the decades-old Ambassador Bridge to carry 99% of commercial traffic through Detroit. It’s narrow, only has four lanes for commercial traffic, has never been re-decked, lacks a direct freeway-to-freeway connection and dumps traffic into commercial streets in Windsor where trucks get stopped by 18 stoplights on the way to the [401] highway.”

Also, in today’s climate of heightened fear over terrorist attacks, having two bridges is better than one, Snyder noted. In April this year a truck fire on the Ambassador Bridge closed it for several hours.

Canada, too, has shown commitment to a new bridge by going ahead with a major connecting road from Windsor. This summer should see completion of the last section of the Herb Gray Parkway that will funnel traffic off the new bridge directly onto the Highway 401 freeway. The 11km Herb Gray has will have cost £1.2 billion to construct, also under a PPP deal (see box).

Technical issues concerning the new bridge are likely to be less contentious than has been the political run-up to construction. As Snyder said, Michigan taxpayers will be getting a free bridge under Canada’s PPP deal. However, Snyder and the Detroit authorities have for years been urging the US Federal Government to stump up at least some of the cash. Although a presidential permit was granted in 2013 to build the bridge, no money has been forthcoming.
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Ambassador Bridge
“The Canadian government has made it abundantly clear that nothing will interfere with the project,” Andy Doctoroff, Snyder's “point-man” for the bridge project, told World Highways. “Michigan will not be funding the project,” he said, and Canada has “generously agreed” to foot the bill.

Indeed, Snyder has been scathing in his criticism over the US federal government’s reticence to open up its chequebook to pay for even a US customs plaza on the new bridge. Last September he said the US authorities should be embarrassed by their behaviour.

"And how would you feel if you were Canada, to say you were being asked to pay for that facility? I think it’s offensive to the Canadian government and the people of Canada. So, I would rather have us do the right thing and just pay for it or rent it.”

The struggle by Snyder and sympathetic Michigan politicians with seemingly obdurate US federal authorities underlines that cultural difference between the US and Canada regarding the financial model for paying for large infrastructure projects. “PPPs are much more common in Canada and the US,” says Doctoroff. “But the concept is more than intriguing to the [Michigan] state administration… which is committed to exploring them.” Michigan is, in fact, one of the states that has started using PPP for some infrastructure contracts.

The state of Florida, too, has used PPP as reported by World Highways in October. Last year Florida opened 16km of new reversible express lanes as part of its $1.8 billion Port of Miami Tunnel Project. Also last year, the Florida Department of Transportation reached financial close on its $2.3 billion I-4 Ultimate project, the largest availability payment-based PPP contract in the US.

“P3 deals in themselves are neither good nor bad, it’s the type of contract that counts,” says Andrew Finn, programme associate at the Canada Institute within the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, based in Washington D.C. The institute advises policymakers in Canada and the US on issues about energy, environment, border and border security, as well as trade.

“Budget constraints are going to keep the possibility of PPP deals alive in the US, but they will have to be done well. I’ve always found that the big government part of the appeal against the bridge has been one of political expediency rather than conviction,” he told World Highways.

“Canadians are generally more accepting of public-private involvement in infrastructure than Americans. This is mostly due to Canada’s earlier use and some high profile success stories, such as the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia for the 2010 Winter Olympics. I think it is changing, as more and more US jurisdictions take lessons from Canada and Europe.”

But the new Detroit-Windsor bridge has a twist to it, explains Finn. “I don’t think the bridge question had much to do with resistance to P3s. It was more the result of a massive spending campaign by the Ambassador Bridge owners and putting the issue forward as big government in a spending excess.”

Mark Butler, a spokesman for the WDBA, agrees that the US is less likely to go down a PPP route than Canada. There is, he told World Highways, “a cultural issue at play” and only now is Michigan tentatively exploring P3 contracts.
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Ambassador Bridge
Image: Steven Kriemadis
Exactly what form the new bridge’s PPP deal will take is not decided yet, Butler explained. But it will probably be a 25-30 year contract where the concessionaire is repaid its investment plus a profit from tolls collected by the Canadian authorities upon leaving and entering Canada. US authorities will not collect tolls.

The WDBA will finance the project which will be a suspension or cable-stayed structure built under a build-operate-maintain contract, where the WDBA retains ownership of the asset. A Request for Quotation is possible by the end of this year and a Request for Proposal by the end of 2016, he said.

Meanwhile, the WDBA has been buying up land on both sides of the border for construction of bridge structural supports. On US territory, land is needed for access roads to Interstate 75 and 94 highways, as well as that large controversial customs plaza that will house American border controls.

At one point, members of the conservative protest group Americans for Prosperity posted bogus eviction notices on homes in Detroit’s Delray district, an area in which the WDBA is buying property. The group said at the time their protest was meant to get residents to complain about the proposed bridge to their local politicians.

But just how much antipathy really exists towards another crossing? Not a lot, says Snyder’s pointman Doctoroff. “I believe the project is immensely popular in Michigan and supported by a broad coalition of people including business leaders as well as Republican and Democrat politicians,” he says. “Very rarely do I come across people who express opposition to the project.”

Doctoroff points to the result of a Michigan-wide referendum called Proposal 6 held in November 2012. Results showed people were in favour of the bridge. Proposal 6 called for a public vote on the construction of any new bridge. Proposal 6 was defeated by 60% of the more than four million voters. The result means that no public vote is needed to proceed with a new bridge and frees states politicians to decide the issue.

However, that does leave 40% of voters against the bridge being constructed without their direct consent. Considering that the bridge will not cost US taxpayers anything, why would they vote against it? That point has been fodder for many well-known American comedians who poke fun at people rejecting a free billion-dollar bridge.

Top of the voters against the bridge was none other than the man whose family owns the existing Ambassador Bridge. Patriarch of the Moroun family, Manuel, is worth nearly $1.8 billion, according to a Forbes magazine estimate.

Crossing the Detroit River

The 1.6km two-lane tube highway tunnel was completed in 1930, costing $25 million.

The 2.3km suspension bridge of four undivided lanes was opened in 1929 and cost $23.5 million. The longest span is 560m and clearance to the river is 46m. It was bought in 1979 by US trucking businessman Manuel "Matty" Moroun and is managed through his Detroit International Bridge Company in the United States and the Canadian Transit Company subsidiary in Canada.

A 2km double track route for freight only, opened in 1910.

Crossing time for the tugboat-assisted barge is 20 minutes, with 10 times daily trips carrying up to eight trucks depending on their size. Hazardous materials are banned from the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit–Windsor Tunnel so the ferry is used mainly by HAZMAT trucks.

A ferry was running until 1929; none is planned for the future.
When Michigan politicians were debating a new bridge in 2011, the family spent millions of dollars on TV ads opposing its construction. The Morouns also spent millions of dollars supporting Proposal 6, according to Detroit media at the time. The Moroun’s Canadian business, Canada Transit Company, also ran TV ads, attacking then Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty of wasting Canadian taxpayers’ money.

But the Moroun family’s fight continues in spite of the odds. Their Ambassador Bridge website is in the forefront of getting his no-new-bridge message across. The family has a lot to lose from competition by a government-backed bridge.

A Bloomberg BusinessWeek report in May 2012 noted that annual toll revenue from the Ambassador Bridge brings about $60 million into the family’s trucking, shipping and insurance empire. The 7,100 trucks using the bridge daily ship $82 billion worth of goods annually -- more than America exports to Germany or Japan.

A more recent Michigan Department of Transportation report estimates that traffic crossing the border is anticipated to grow from 18,500 vehicles a day in 2016 to 26,500 by 2025. Ever since 1989, when the US and Canada signed their Free Trade Agreement to boost bilateral trade, freight crossing the border has risen annually and will continue to do so. Each day, 36,000 trucks pass through all the border routes across the continent, of which a quarter use the Detroit-Windsor route, Transport Canada noted in 2008.

But Moroun disputes these statistics and commissioned his own report, viewable on his website. It suggests that traffic has been falling since the tragic terrorist events of September 2011 in New York, and will continue to fall. Construction cost overruns and less-than-estimated traffic volumes will shatter the PPP financial package, leaving the people of Michigan as well as Canadians to foot the bill.

When the dust has settled -- funding in place, land acquired, contracts signed and the heavy equipment moved in – one group may still despair of the project. Conservationists and environmentalists say the habitat of the Thamnophis butleri – the 50cm Butler Gartersnake – is seriously under threat.

Gordie Howe International Bridge

In January the Canadian arm of California-based Parsons was appointed as general engineering consultant under a reportedly $17 million contract. A Transport Canada notice in 2008 suggested two designs. A suspension bridge would have an elongated ‘M’ shape, similar to the Ambassador Bridge. A cable-stayed structure would be noticeable by its ‘A’ shape, similar to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida. Both options would be nearly 3km long.

The suspension option would have 855m spans while a cable-stayed bridge would use 840m spans. Both bridges would have the same 40m clearance at the shorelines and have a 47m clearance at channel centre.

Main towers for the cable-stayed option would be 250m high main towers while a suspension bridge’s towers would be around 140m. Both options would have 36m wide decks for six lanes

and include a median, shoulders and – security concerns aside - a walkway and/or cycle path on one side.

A Canadian customs plaza might cover around 43 hectares with 29 inbound inspection lanes, including nine for cars, 14 for trucks and five for both cars and trucks. One lane would be for buses.

Proposed Detroit River International Crossing
The new bridge could be open by 2020
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Herb Gray Parkway
The Herb Gray Parkway is almost finished and will link up with the new bridge
Herb Gray Parkway

The new Detroit-Windsor Bridge will be the last piece of a major motorway network based around the 820km Highway 401 freeway in Canada. The 401 is part of the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor that passes through land in which around 20 million of Canada's 35 million population resides.

From the Windsor area, Highway 401 skims across the northern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, passing through one of Canada’s largest cities, Toronto, and then to Ontario’s border with the province of Quebec. The 401 ends there, but connects to Quebec provincial motorways heading towards Montreal and then up to the province’s capital Quebec City.

The Achilles heel for this Quebec City–Windsor Corridor has been the 401’s lack of connection to the Ambassador Bridge. At the moment, trucks from the US pour off the bridge directly into the already congested central streets of Windsor. The new bridge and a new connecting highway will remedy this, authorities on both sides of border claim.

A part of Canada’s commitment to a new bridge crossing, construction began in 2011 on the four-to-six lane 11km Windsor-Essex Parkway – later named the Herb Gray Parkway in honour of a local politician who was a deputy Canadian prime minister.

The parkway, that includes nearly 2km of roadway through 11 tunnels, is costing nearly $1.2 billion to build and the final section is on schedule for completion this summer. It’s been constructed under a 30-year PPP contract valued around $1.76 billion when the contract ends.

Ownership of the Herb Gray remains with the province of Ontario which selected the consortium Windsor Essex Mobility Group (WEMG) to design, build, finance and maintain the Parkway under Ontario’s Alternative Finance and Procurement model. WEMG consists of ACS Infrastructure Canada, Acciona Concessions Canada and Fluor Canada. Maintenance includes roadways, green space and trails.

Companies in this article

Michigan Department of Transportation
Florida Department of Transportation
World Highways

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