Future traffic a key rumble in the bridge debate


By any measure, a lot of traffic crosses the Ambassador Bridge each year.

The bridge is the busiest crossing between the U.S. and Canada, the world’s two largest trade partners, carrying more than 7 million vehicles in 2010 and an estimated 25% of U.S.-Canadian trade.

But that’s down in recent years, and future traffic is a key question in the debate over whether Michigan should agree to build the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) bridge backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and most business and labor leaders.

Government projections predict that car and truck traffic volume on the NITC bridge will swell to 10 million crossings a year by 2030, about 50% more vehicle crossings than on the Ambassador today. That volume of traffic would demand the six-lane span the NITC would create instead of the older, four-lane Ambassador Bridge.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his supporters scoff at those predictions, calling them far too optimistic and saying traffic 20 years from now will be only about where it is today. They, too, want to replace the Ambassador — by building a new bridge next to it — mostly to upgrade infrastructure.

It’s a key point of contention, and it reflects the broader debate on the future of Michigan and whether its economy will recover and grow in decades to come.

“There’s every reason to believe traffic volumes will increase” as the economy grows, said Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University and an authority on Michigan’s economy.

Future of bridge traffic tied to future of state

The debate over a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor mirrors the debate over the future of Michigan itself.

Those who see the state’s manufacturing might as inevitably growing smaller tend to believe the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) bridge — backed by Gov. Rick Snyder — isn’t needed because traffic volumes on the Ambassador Bridge already have peaked. The family and employees of Ambassador owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun are in this camp.

Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s director of government relations, contends that a decades-long rise in truck traffic induced by free-trade agreements topped out about 10 years ago. With domestic auto manufacturers having lost market share in the past 10 years, there is no new big driver that would push up traffic in decades to come, he said.

“What more incentive do we have? The only way we increase the number of trucks going across the border is if we’re manufacturing more,” and that’s not happening, Blashfield said.

But Snyder and almost all business and labor leaders, plus Canadian officials, back a new government-owned bridge to Canada. They note that Detroit automakers actually gained market share in the past year and may gain more in the future. They say the image of a Michigan whose best manufacturing days are behind it is much too bleak.

“It’s quite shocking,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said last week. “If you believed (Moroun’s) assumptions, I don’t know why any of us involved in Michigan government would come to work any day. It’s such a bleak and dire and hopeless future that they assume.”

The NITC bridge would be built by a public-private partnership and owed by the State of Michigan and Canada, with the Canadian government providing more than $500 million toward construction and the rest coming from private investors. The investors and Canadians would be repaid from toll collections.

There are, of course, reasons beyond traffic to build a new bridge. The Ambassador Bridge is 82 years old and is showing its age; rust mars the guardrails, and a lengthy project is under way to redeck the bridge. The Ambassador’s four lanes are considered too few for a modern bridge, which ideally would have six lanes, including at least one in each direction dedicated to prescreened traffic.

But the years-long debate about the NITC project inevitably returns to traffic projections. Snyder and other proponents of a government bridge say they believe traffic will rise in the future as the economy improves, reaching levels in 2050 roughly double today’s traffic volumes. Moroun and his supporters say those projections are overly optimistic.

Both sides agree there’s a close link between the state of the economy and the volume of commercial traffic crossing the border. Since the 1970s, as free-trade agreements began to encourage more crossings, commercial traffic soared. Truck crossings at the Ambassador roughly doubled in the 1990s.

Since then, tighter homeland security and economic slowdowns have kept annual truck crossings nearly steady at above 3 million a year. When the economy tanked in 2008 and ’09, truck crossings declined sharply. Commercial traffic has picked up more recently as the economy rebounded.

Passenger car traffic, meanwhile, has declined dramatically since 9/11, both because of tighter security measures that discourage leisure travel and a weaker U.S. dollar that makes shopping in Windsor less of a bargain than it once was.

Even so, about 40% of all the truck traffic crossing the border between Michigan and New York crosses at the Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador carries twice the commercial traffic as the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, the next most heavily used venue.

Ron Rienas, general manager of the public authority that operates the Peace Bridge between Buffalo, N.Y., and Ft. Erie, Ontario, said waiting for traffic to increase before building a bridge may be too late.

“If you don’t have infrastructure in place, you lose on opportunities that could arise,” Rienas said. “If it gets to the point of congestion, then investment dollars will flow elsewhere.”

Others not directly involved in the project expect the state’s economy to pick up and with it, bridge traffic.

“There’s every reason to believe traffic volumes will increase,” said Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University and an expert on the state’s economy. “Ontario is the industrial heartland of Canada. They are sending stuff not just to metro Detroit, but also to other parts of the country.”

He said the Great Lakes region has become much more efficient and is poised for growth. Though Ballard acknowledges that Michigan’s economy is smaller than it was a decade ago, he noted that it is still more than 20 times larger than it was 70 years ago.

“To say that the growth of the last couple centuries has come to a screeching halt — that’s a really big stretch for me,” Ballard said.

Michael Belzer, a professor at Wayne State University who specializes in the economics of freight transportation, also agrees that truck traffic volumes at the Detroit-Windsor border will increase over the coming decades.

Unless a new bridge is built, “we will be right back into the congestion problem we had a decade ago,” he said, recalling the days before the economy tanked when trucks were lined up bumper to bumper at the Ambassador Bridge.

Belzer, who runs a nonprofit group that is trying to create an inland port in Detroit, also pointed out that more than 100 years ago, companies originally invested in Detroit because it had great transportation assets.

Today, infrastructure still plays a key role in attracting business investments to the area, he said.