U.S.-Canada border crossings increase 5%

By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press Business Writer

Border crossings increased about 5% in 2011 over the previous year at 11 U.S.-Canada crossing sites, but the modest increase will do little to end debate on the need for a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

In all, some 37.1 million cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles crossed the border at the 11 sites among Michigan and upstate New York. Passenger car traffic rose 6.6% to 30.3 million crossings, while commercial truck traffic was flat from the year before at 6.7 million crossings.

The Ambassador Bridge remained the busiest crossing by far, accounting for 4.6 million passenger car crossings and 2.6 million truck crossings. Passenger car traffic at the Ambassador was up 2% over the year before while truck traffic at the bridge was down 2.5% from 2010.

Traffic on the Ambassador may have been limited last year because of a lengthy bridge-redecking project that closed one of the bridge’s four lanes much of the year, perhaps pushing some traffic to other crossings. The next-busiest crossing was the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Ft. Erie, Ontario, followed by the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario.

The traffic data are released by the Public Border Operators Association, a nonprofit organization for bridge and tunnel management.

Border crossing statistics and projections are at the core of the debate over the need for the New International Trade Crossing, which is Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal for a new publicly owned bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

Under the governor’s plan, Canada would pay Michigan’s share of the project costs up front, to be paid back through bridge tolls in the future.

Supporters of Snyder’s proposal contend that traffic will continue to show increases as the economy recovers.

Proponents of NITC, (also known as the Detroit River International Crossing or DRIC), forecast traffic across the border will swell to perhaps twice current levels in future decades.

Opponents say that’s unlikely and that current traffic levels do not support the need for a new bridge.

Traffic across the border peaked around 2000 but has been down significantly since for a variety of complex reasons. Tighter security in the wake of the 2001 9/11 terror attacks has discouraged casual travelers. A stronger Canadian dollar means U.S. shoppers no longer find such great bargains by going to Windsor. And the Great Recession sharply curtailed economic traffic across the bridge.

Because of those and other reasons, car and truck traffic across the Ambassador in 2011 was about 25% lower than in pre-recession 2006.

“Our regional economy and the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people rely on the international trade that crosses our border daily. Therefore it is vital to build a second bridge so that this transportation system is modern, safe and secure,” Gregg Ward, manager of a hazardous material ferry between Detroit and Windsor, said Monday. Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge, said the traffic figures dispel the notion that rising traffic levels call for a new government-owned bridge.

“The only reason to have a bridge is to serve traffic demand, and 2011, like the past 10 years, is the diametric opposite of what the DRIC/NITC advocates said would occur,” he said in a statement.