BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
When the Ambassador Bridge opened in 1929, it carried five lanes of traffic instead of today’s four.
As vehicles became wider over the decades, the Ambassador’s lanes were reduced to accommodate them. Yet even four lanes are considered too few given today’s traffic volumes, in part because the Ambassador lacks dedicated lanes for prescreened cars and trucks.
The resulting delays are more than just hassles for people traveling between the two countries; they add to the price of cars and hurt the economies of both Canada and the U.S, according to one study.
For these reasons and more, just about everyone involved in Michigan’s great bridge debate supports building some new bridge to replace or supplement the Ambassador.
The question boils down to who would build it and own it — Ambassador owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun as a private businessman or the citizens of Michigan and Canada through public authorities.
For Moroun and his family, it’s a clear case of upgrading their existing infrastructure.
“You wouldn’t deny Ford, Chrysler or GM retooling for a new model year. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s director of government relations.
But Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is Gov. Rick Snyder’s point person battling to win approval for the publicly owned New International Trade Crossing (NITC), said the advantages of the NITC project over Moroun’s replacement span are so obvious, the NITC will win.
“It will happen,” Calley said.
Both bridge options look better than status quo
Earlier this year, a study by two Canadian universities estimated that delays at the Ambassador Bridge have added $800 to the cost of every new vehicle produced in the U.S. and Canada.
That alone, say many advocates of a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, should justify a new span to replace or supplement the 82-year-old Ambassador.
But there are other reasons why it makes sense to replace it. So many reasons, in fact, that the Moroun family themselves, owners of the Ambassador, want to build their own new bridge and keep the Ambassador mostly as a backup.
Some benefits of a new span, such as extra lanes to speed up traffic flow, would result from either the replacement span the Morouns want to build or from the government-owned New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project that Gov. Rick Snyder supports.
Other benefits would flow from only the NITC project, such as a direct connection to area expressways on both sides of the border. The Morouns’ replacement span would land trucks on surface streets in Windsor.
But if there is general agreement on the need for a new span, there is, of course, bitter debate over who should build it. Mickey Blashfield, the Morouns’ director of government relations, characterizes Snyder’s arguments for the NITC as, “Oh, my God, the sky is falling, we need a new bridge,” while he portrays the Morouns’ plan as a simple upgrading of what they operate now.
Faster customs processing could be another benefit of a new bridge. A newly designed bridge with a customs plaza designed for today’s needs would work more efficiently than the existing facilities.
“Things have changed since 9/11,” said Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general to Detroit. “It doesn’t mean that existing capacity all became outdated or irrelative, but standards are certainly higher.
“At the busiest crossing, you ideally would have customs plazas that were built to offer scrutiny to post-9/11 standards as opposed to ones that have to be jury-rigged for those standards.”
Ron Rienas, who is general manager of the public authority that is trying to add a second span at the Peace Bridge between Buffalo, N.Y., and Ft. Erie, Ontario, said an additional span helps make border crossings more efficient by providing dedicated lanes for trusted travelers programs; allowing for additional lane closures that speed up common bridge maintenance, and supplying overall border redundancy in cases of an actual bridge closure.
When connected to a modern plaza — such as is proposed with the NITC project — a second span also would lessen air pollution by reducing traffic backups and congestion, he added.
The Ambassador Bridge also needs significant maintenance, including a re-decking now under way that causes further delays.
The study by professors at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University found that backups at the border, some because of new security checks, create such a burden on automakers as to seriously impact the economies of Ontario and Quebec. With automakers dependent on just-in-time delivery of parts, delays of even a few hours can cost them.
The study said any benefits for Canada gained under the North American Free Trade Agreement “may have evaporated, or at least been negated, by the re-emerging priority of new security-driven barriers to trade at the border.”