Bridge to alleviate customs delays

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Anyone driving over the Ambassador Bridge knows that it often takes longer to get through customs than it does to cross the bridge itself.

One of the promises of Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed New International Trade Crossing bridge is that those customs delays would be alleviated.

The reason: Customs inspections plazas on either end of the NITC bridge would be roughly five times bigger than existing plazas at the Ambassador Bridge, with more modern facilities and easier traffic flow.

For supporters, greater efficiency in customs inspection is a big selling point.

“We can’t inspect large trucks on site at the Ambassador Bridge, so we have to go to an off-site inspection area. So this would get all the inspection in the one location,” said Mark Butler, a spokesman for Transport Canada, a Canadian federal agency backing the NITC project.

But Dan Stamper, president of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co., said the NITC’s much-larger plazas aren’t needed.

“Their so-called self-inflicted requirements are not based on reality or actual work at the border. It’s based on political considerations,” Stamper said late last week.

State lawmakers are expected to take up the bridge debate again shortly, with a decision expected this fall.

Elaborate plazas planned

Plans for the NITC call for building the new bridge about 2 miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge to the Windsor neighborhood of Sandwich. It would connect directly to local expressways in Detroit through a series of ramps, and in Windsor to Canada’s 401 expressway via a new highway now under construction.

The proposed customs plazas at the NITC bridge would be 160 acres on the Detroit side and 139 acres on the Windsor side. In contrast, the U.S. plaza at the Ambassador Bridge is approximately 30 acres; the existing Canadian plaza is approximately 20 acres.

The larger proposed plazas reflect the heightened security requirements in a post-9/11 world. They also reflect the need for dedicated lanes for prescreened vehicles and cargo, as well as a desire for improved traffic flow through the plazas.

Proponents of Snyder’s bridge plan contend that only the NITC project can create these new super plazas because the existing plazas at the Ambassador Bridge are landlocked. In Windsor, for example, the University of Windsor and other tenants of downtown Windsor are located immediately outside the bounds of the customs inspection zone.

Some of the extras planned for the NITC plazas include space for hazardous materials containment; a 5,000-square-foot site for the observation, inspection and unloading of animals, and space for a future large kennel for the care of dogs used in security operations.

It doesn’t come cheap. The cost for the plazas runs to an estimated $413.6 million on the U.S. side and $387.6 million on the Windsor side. Combined, the two plazas would cost almost as much as a new bridge itself. In each case, the national government pays the cost of its respective plaza.

But, as with all aspects of the bridge debate, there is disagreement over the need for such big customs plazas. Stamper said last week that the existing inspection plazas at the Ambassador work just fine.

The Ambassador Bridge “handles twice as much traffic as anyone else with less problems. It’s a matter of them making political decisions, and we’re making operational decisions,” he said.

But U.S. and Canadian officials contend that the new NITC plazas would offer many improvements over the Ambassador’s current setup.

In each new plaza, about half the space would be devoted to the inspection and clearance of vehicles. The rest of the space would be devoted to bridge infrastructure, duty-free facilities, various other security functions, and a buffer zone to protect nearby neighborhoods from noise and pollution.

The buffer zone would include landscaped berms. There may also be lighting shields to block the nighttime lighting within the plaza from disturbing nearby residents.

“It’s to mitigate any of the adverse effects of a plaza against the community,” Mark Butler, a spokesman for Transport Canada, a federal agency, said of the planned buffer zone. “It also provides us with that extra piece for future expansion.”