Canada leads US in border-crossing infrastructure

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters 20/20 Magazine

By Steve Coleman

While the debate over what to do about aging infrastructure continues, Canada’s three busiest border crossings have reached that magical milestone where they earn the title “antique”

The first car to drive over the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, ON and Buffalo, NY made the trip on March 13, 1927. The Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River connecting Windsor, ON and Detroit, MI was completed in 1929 after two years of construction. The Blue Water Bridge connecting Sarnia, ON and Port Huron, MI carried its first traffic across the St. Clair River on October 10, 1930.

While the actual bridges aren’t getting any younger, the Canadian side of the border has spent more on ensuring vehicles coming into this country don’t wait as long to continue on their way as cars and trucks headed for the United States. The Crown corporations looking after the busiest crossings are ahead of the game, compared to the US, when it comes to border access.

Both sides of the border were included in a December 7 announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and US President Barack Obama, citing that standards at the border will be harmonized over the next few years, which could help American-bound vehicles get to where they need to be, faster.

“The announcement came that the Michigan plaza (in Port Huron) is back on the priority list, which is a real plus for us,” said Blue Water Bridge President & CEO, Chuck Chrapko. “Our delays are caused by a lack of infrastructure on the Port Huron side. They have a total of 13 lanes to process cars and trucks. Their new plaza design takes it up to 20, which is a significant boost.”

The grounds at the foot of the actual bridge on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River, just north of Sarnia in Point Edward, finished a two-and-a-half-year, $80-million upgrade this summer. The bridge authority used its toll revenue to add two more primary inspection lanes for commercial traffic. The work took the available number of lanes from five to seven.

The Crown corporation also added an office building that’s now home to the Canada Border Service Agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, customs brokers and the bridge authority’s administration staff.

Bridge administrators across the country, along with business groups on both sides of the border have been pushing for changes to the way things are done for years. Plans for a one-stop electronic portal to register shipments with the government have been at the top of the wish list for trucking firms for years, Chrapko said.

When it comes to the December 7 announcement that more funding will be made available to fix US border customs plazas, the Canadian bridge operators consider it good news.

“We’ve all invested heavily into our own plazas to expand and to accommodate the post-9/11 world,” Chrapko said. “Blue Water Bridge, the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, and Niagara Falls have all enhanced their plazas to meet the new requirements, but we’re all having similar issues on the US side. The infrastructure has been lacking.”

The US side of the Peace Bridge is in Buffalo. The Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit falls into the middle of both of those cities.

According to Mathew Wilson, CME vice president of national policy, the challenge with infrastructure often isn’t the money. A lot of times, he said, the problems are political.

“The bridges were put over rivers 90 years ago out in the middle of nowhere. Now, most of these places where there are bridges are in the middle of cities. It’s very difficult to do a massive expansion project on the existing facilities to bring them up to modern standards.”

The Ambassador Bridge, even though it’s North America’s busiest commercial border crossing, is one of the worst to get across, Wilson said.

Privately-owned Detroit International Bridge Company owns and operates the bridge and has held up plans to add a new, second span across the Detroit River. The issue is currently locked up in the Michigan court system.

The existing bridge opened to regular traffic three weeks after the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

“Two weeks of trade today, automotive trade alone, is as much as the entire Canada-US trade when that bridge was built,” Wilson said. “You can’t possibly squeeze that much through the Ambassador Bridge. It’s not proper for the economy and it really undermines our competitiveness.”

December’s announcement that changes are in store for the border also included relief for private citizens looking to cross over for vacations or shopping. Regular commuters who take the extra time to have their backgrounds checked should notice a real difference once the reforms are introduced.

“There will be two Nexus lanes as a minimum, which is something which is definitely required here,” Chrapko said. “Our Nexus usership is close to 50,000 right now. That’s just local ­cardholders here.”