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Ambassador Bridge will exceed challenge: officials

WINDSOR, Ont. - Ambassador Bridge officials say the bridge will exceed the "25 per cent challenge" issued by Public Security Minister Anne McLelland and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at a...

WINDSOR, Ont. – Ambassador Bridge officials say the bridge will exceed the “25 per cent challenge” issued by Public Security Minister Anne McLelland and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at a news conference in Detroit Dec. 17.

McLelland and Ridge said they wanted truck wait times reduced as much as 25 per cent within one year at Windsor-Detroit. Skip McMahon, director of special projects for the bridge company, said the new infrastructure will “increase it by substantially more than that.”

McMahon added plans are proceeding to open exclusive FAST (Free and Secure Trade) processing plazas in both Detroit and Windsor, increasing the number of Customs inspection lanes dramatically. Target opening date is this summer.

This will increase to 21 from 14 the number of lanes devoted to trucks. And FAST-registered vehicles will “not be encumbered” by non-FAST haulers at lanes exclusively for them, management says. On the Canadian side, construction is expected to start soon to build a ramp that will take trucks across Huron Church Rd. to a FAST-dedicated plaza on the west side of Huron Church Rd. There will be Customs lanes located there. This is in addition to three general truck lanes soon opening on the existing Customs plaza, McMahon said.

“Our goal is to have it all running by summer of this year.”

Meanwhile, the bridge company boasted that the opening of four new truck inspection lanes on the U.S. side of the border late last year has already dramatically reduced chronic truck back-ups heading to the bridge in Windsor.

McMahon said the lanes “eliminated the back-ups on the border simply from a Customs through-put perspective.” As a result McMahon counted only four major truck back-ups that were caused by incidents unrelated to Customs processing, such as vehicle accidents and an information picket by Canadian Customs employees last fall protesting contract talks.

Truck backups, which had often been occurring one or two days a week, had stretched back as long as 14 km from the bridge to Highway 401, creating a major headache not just for truckers but for area businesses and local motorists. Ironically, truck backups started appearing again the last week of October because of stepped-up inspections for terrorist activity leading to the Nov. 2 U. S. presidential election.

McMahon said U.S. Customs usually process a truck every two minutes or 30 trucks per lane per hour. Lanes are opened on demand. So two minutes per truck moving through 13 booths expedites almost 400 trucks an hour. “And we know historically that when they’re moving 310, 320 or 330 on a regular basis we never have a backup.”

“It’s much improved,” Windsor Police Staff Sergeant Ed McNorton, agreed. “There’s some waits, just because of the volume, but nothing like prior to opening the new lanes, so it’s really helped.” He added backups are now measured in “several hundred yards or blocks down” rather than many kilometres.

But representatives of area businesses along Huron Church, a major commercial strip, as well as trucking firms, remained skeptical.

Rob Evans, a hotel manager and representative of an area business group that has seen business drop due to backups, said the “Terrible Tuesdays and Wicked Wednesdays” – traditionally the worst days for truck backups – may no longer happen. “But we still certainly have backups,” some taking as long as 15 to 30 minutes.

Paul LeFave, a transportation consultant with Border Freight Resources in Windsor, called the improved processing “great.” But he said it is still a “band aid” to what should be a long-term border solution. And he said U.S. security concerns remain a problem. “We’re still sitting at a yellow alert. Wait ’til it bumps up to an orange alert.”

Doug Switzer, manager of government relations for the Ontario Trucking Association, said it “does seem” the new booths have put a major dent in the back-ups, but added it “hasn’t completely solved the problem.”

He said to “focus on cues” ignores the “problem of infrastructure in Windsor.” He said with three-quarters of a million trucks using Huron Church, a city road with more than a dozen traffic lights, a solution must be found “to get around the situation where Canada’s busiest truck link is a city street.” He said another crossing is needed to provide “redundancy” in case the Ambassador Bridge is imperiled by major accidents or a terrorist attack.

George Ledson, president of Bolton-based Cavalier Transportation and past OTA chair, said he still steers trucks clear of Windsor-Detroit, opting for Sarnia-Port Huron, “because of the problems with the Detroit Gateway.”

He added back-ups might not be as bad as they once were but are subject to “fits and starts…It’s always been, at certain times of the day a driver can get across a lot better.”

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