Customs booth brouhaha

by Ron Stang

WINDSOR, Ont. — Windsor business interests have joined the American-owned Ambassador Bridge in a campaign to get the long dormant six additional Customs truck booths at the bridge’s Canadian plaza opened.

The Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce has written federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to open the booths, built in 2007, to improve the flow of trucks – and commerce – between Detroit and Windsor, as well as to prevent traffic accidents on the U.S. side of the bridge.

“There continues to be ongoing, lengthy and costly backups emanating from the Canadian side of the border at the Ambassador Bridge,” the letter states. “In addition to the increased accident risk this is causing along I-75 in Detroit, and our responsibility as good neighbors not to do that, the cost of all of this delay and uncertainty to our business community is huge.”

During peak times of the day, usually in mid to late afternoon, there have long been backups of trucks across the bridge as far back as access ramps from Michigan freeways, even onto regular lanes of those expressways.

In a statement, the bridge company said this has caused a “number of traffic deaths and injuries.”

In recent weeks the bridge, which has long been critical of slow Customs processing of traffic on both sides of the border, has started a public campaign to finally open the booths, including placing a banner strung across the top of them saying, “Eliminate Wait Times, Open These Booths.”

The booths were originally built in 2007 as the bridge was preparing to build a second span across the Detroit River. The bridge company finally got conditional approval to build the span from Canada’s federal cabinet last year.

Matt Marchand, president and CEO of the chamber, said the traffic delays are not helping to improve the investment climate locally or for the province.

“I can only point out that we live in a very competitive space right now, we have high and rising electricity costs, we have cap and trade, we have corporate and personal income tax cuts on the U.S. side, our cost structure in Ontario is very high,” he said in an interview. “The business case for doing and retaining business here in Ontario is getting strained each and every day, so we have to make sure that we keep as best to our ability the trade lines open.”

But the chamber has been taken to task by Windsor’s mayor, Drew Dilkens, who said opening the booths is a non-starter because of their awkward configuration and because of ongoing discussions with the bridge company over conditions the company must meet before it can construct its new span.

In his own letter to Goodale, Dilkens said the chamber’s action is a way to “obviate” that process. And in an interview, Dilkens called the chamber’s letter to the public safety minister an “end run” around negotiations with another federal ministry, transport, and said the business organization had been “co-opted” by the bridge company. “There’s a whole host of issues that have to be resolved,” Dilkens said, before the bridge company can begin building its second span.

But Dilkens said the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which staffs the booths, long ago made it known those booths can’t open because they are on the other side of the three-lane Huron Church Road, a main city artery, and not “contiguous” to the existing Customs plaza. They therefore would impede Customs operations.

“What they’ve effectively said is unless Huron Church Road is closed, we won’t put our staff there because we won’t allow a municipal roadway to bisect an international port of entry,” the mayor said.

Dilkens also blamed the Ambassador Bridge itself for the backups. He pointed to ongoing construction work on the existing bridge span and “traffic management” generally by the bridge company.

Should Huron Church be closed to temporarily improve truck processing until the new span is built this would “deleverage the position the city of Windsor has in their negotiations for the overall project,” Dilkens said.

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