Michigan may allow hazardous materials across Ambassador Bridge

The idea is ‘ludicrous’: NDP MP Brian Masse

By JESSICA BRUNO | The Hill Times

Canada’s busiest international truck crossing may soon be getting even busier, if the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit is approved to carry trucks holding hazardous materials across the border, despite opposition on both sides of the Detroit River.

The Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, is seeking permission from the Michigan government to let trucks carrying gas, propane, and other flammable and corrosive chemicals across the bridge.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has been looking at the issue since 2010, and in December it released a report that recommended some hazardous materials be allowed to cross the bridge.

Under the proposed new rules, trucks carrying gases and chemicals would require Ambassador Bridge escort vehicles to make the trip across the span with them.

“It’s ludicrous and it’s irresponsible to consider putting our most important piece of infrastructure at-risk unnecessarily,” said NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont.) who represents the area of Windsor around the bridge. Exceptions include explosives and radioactive materials.

In Detroit, the area’s state representative, Democrat Rashida Tlaib, is also concerned about transporting hazardous materials across the bridge, and through densely populated urban areas.

“Given the age and security requirements of the Ambassador Bridge, opening it up for transport of dangerous hazmat, as the [MDOT] report suggests, endangers the public,” Ms. Tlaib wrote to her constituents, according to a Jan. 23 story in Detroit’s Metro Times.

The Department of Transportation is currently inviting public input on the proposal, and Mr. Masse said he is almost done preparing a submission against the move.

Mr. Masse said he’s concerned about accidents involving hazardous materials on the bridge or in the highly populated area nearby.

“Not only is the risk factor on the bridge, but it will certainly be an increased risk factor with the general public,” he said.

The Ambassador Bridge is 83 years old, and transporting hazardous materials across it has been banned since it was constructed in 1929.

The bridge’s owners requested that the Department of Transportation look into transporting dangerous materials across the bridge in 2008, because of recent upgrades to the highway leading to and from the crossing, explained Ambassador Bridge President Dan Stamper.

There are now on and off ramps that lead directly from the nearby highway to the bridge. Previously, traffic would have to go through local Detroit streets, Mr. Stamper said.

According to the Michigan report, there have been 15 truck crashes on the Ambassador Bridge between 2000 and 2006. In that same time period, the report states there have been 67 releases of hazardous materials in the Detroit area.

On average every day across the U.S., hazardous materials make one million trips, noted Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Rob Morosi.

Adding to traffic congestion at the border crossing is another concern, said Mr. Masse.

“It’s another layer of vehicle traffic that the just-in-time delivery will have to compete against,” Mr. Masse said.

Every day, more than 8,000 trucks cross the Ambassador Bridge, which is Canada’s busiest border crossing, noted Minister of Transport Denis Lebel (Roberval-Lac Saint Jean, Que.) in a column for this week’s transportation policy briefing in The Hill Times.

If the bridge is allowed to carry hazardous materials, the increase in truck traffic would likely be just a few dozen more vehicles a day, said Mr. Stamper.

The bridge carries 25 per cent of Canada-U.S. merchandise trade, worth almost $500-million a day, according to the bridge company.

Mr. Stamper said that while any bump in profits would not be very big, the benefit to truckers would be significant.

Right now, trucks carrying hazardous materials cross use the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry.

“It can be a huge benefit to carriers who have to go way out of their way to cross the river, and it would save them a lot of money,” he said.

Commercial vehicles crossing the bridge pay a toll of between $3.25 and $5.25 an axle. At current rates, which don’t include a premium for hazardous materials, a typical semi-trailer truck with five axles would pay $26.25 to cross the bridge one way.

The ferry operates between 7 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. and it would cost a tractor trailer carrying hazardous materials would $115 U.S. to cross one way. To get to the ferry stations on both sides of the border, trucks must exit the highway and use local streets on the edge of the city.

The ferry is located about a 10-minute drive south on either side of the Ambassador Bridge.

The ferry has operated “incident free” for 20 years, said Mr. Masse, while the bridge is not built to handle hazardous material accidents.

“It’s not purpose built for these types of chemicals to go across. … As we’re designing new bridges, we’ll have containment and capture programs like they have in Sarnia, so if there is an accident with chemicals, there is going to be a way to make sure that we’re not just flushing them into the Detroit River,” he said.

Local past fire chiefs have said they are concerned about how emergency services would respond to an accident on the bridge, said Mr. Masse.

“They would be very limited with the type of equipment that they have and the type of facilities on the bridge,” said Mr. Masse.

Safety improvements are already in the works, said Mr. Stamper.

“We will have the facilities to contain any leaking vehicles with the appropriate capabilities. We’ll have people on staff that are trained to deal with those emergencies,” he said.

Depending on the exact location of an accident, either Windsor or Detroit emergency services could respond to an accident, explained Transport Canada spokesperson Karine Martel.

The response could also involve federal, provincial and state resources.

“Emergency Response Assistance Plans are required for certain dangerous goods that necessitate special expertise and response equipment.  Any person who offers to transport or import these dangerous goods must submit a plan to the [Transportation of Dangerous Goods] directorate, which will then review the plan and, if it is found adequate, will approve it,” added Ms. Martel via email.

The Michigan Department of Transportation study looked at a number of emergency situations, from gas or propane fires to chemical releases.

“While ease of travel and the efficient, economic passage of goods and commerce are high priorities, MDOT and its federal partners—the FMCSA and the PHMSA—consider safety to be a paramount consideration when it comes to transportation of hazardous materials,” states the report.

Michigan will hold a public consultation night in Detroit April 25, where the Department of Transport will make a presentation about their report. The public has until May 24 to submit their comments.

From there, the department will prepare another report for the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, and consult with stakeholders and partners, said Mr. Morosi.

Transport Canada said what is allowed on the bridge is up to the Detroit International Bridge Company, but that Canada can get involved through municipal, provincial or federal regulations on routes leading to the bridge. Any shipment of dangerous goods also has to comply with the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation has until June 2014 to decide whether to allow the bridge to transport hazardous material under state law, said Mr. Morosi.

Transport Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Transport were not consulted during Michigan’s study. While Transport Canada said it is aware of Michigan’s recommendations, it hasn’t received a formal request from the bridge company to let hazardous goods across the span. Bridge owners are required under legislation to give the Canadian government 30 days notice.

In the mean time, Canada and the U.S. are planning on constructing a second bridge in the Detroit-Windsor area, called the Detroit River International Crossing. Canada has committed to paying the entire $1-billion cost of the bridge, and will recuperate its money through tolls for vehicles coming from the U.S. The goal is to complete it by 2018

The company that owns the Ambassador Bridge would like to build its own span, and is against the proposal.

Mr. Morosi said that transporting hazardous materials across the bridge is not a given.

“We have not made a final decision. All we have done to date has been a technical analysis, and again the period of public comment is part of the process to help us make an informed decision,” he said.

Top Three Busiest Canada-U.S. Border Truck Crossings

Ambassador Bridge:
Windsor, Ont. to Detroit, Mich.: about 8,000 trucks a day

Blue Water Bridge:
Port Huron, Michigan, to Sarnia, Ont.: up to 6,000 trucks a day

Peace Bridge:
Niagara Falls, Ont. to Buffalo, N.Y., about 3,400 trucks a day

Sources: Bridge owners; Macomb County Michigan; CBSA