WINDSOR, Ont. — It’s full speed ahead for the new Gordie Howe International Bridge.
The federal Crown agency handling the construction and management of the bridge took media on a widespread tour of both the Canadian and U.S. Customs inspection plazas – officially, Ports of Entry (POEs) – to show the amount of development that has already taken place and to allay doubts the project may be faltering.
“We’re on schedule, we’re exactly where we thought we would be,” said project manager Matt Oldewening. “We’re very comfortable with where we are and any suggestion that we are behind schedule on the U.S. side is not accurate.”
Speculation has been that while the Canadian POE is visibly taking shape, the U.S. side has been bogged down in litigation and there have been few signs of development. But the tour showed wide swaths of open land where commercial and residential structures once stood and officials said they are in “control” of 636 properties though some 13% of these are in litigation. Most of these, including truck yards, are owned by the Maroun family that also owns the rival privately-owned Ambassador Bridge. The family has long fought construction of the Howe bridge, a government-initiated P3 to be located two kilometers away. They call it unfair competition.
Of the litigation, officials were confident they will win and any delays will not hold up construction staging.
“The litigation will play itself out, but we have every confidence that we will obtain the properties that we need when we need them consistent with the construction schedule,” said Andrew Doctoroff, point man for the project in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s office.
Officials were also adamant that construction of the bridge itself – including Customs buildings, piers and the span – would start late next year, after the financial close with one of three prospective international consortiums in September.
“We will have all the properties we need in order to commence construction and continue construction in accordance with the staged construction schedule,” Doctoroff said.
The state of Michigan has so far won all litigation against the project, most recently in a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling upholding a lower court’s dismissal of numerous claims against the project.
Furthermore, Doctoroff said, “We’re very confident that we will get all of the properties that are subject to a court order.”
No date has been announced for when the bridge will open, though a rule of thumb on such projects is four years. Original forecasts were for a 2020 opening.
Altogether, some $2 billion has so far been invested in the bridge project, including access roads. One billion was spent on the 11-km Herb Gray Parkway (Hwy. 401 extension), which opened two-and-a-half years ago. Between that and new investments in the POEs, “We are already around $2 billion in the ground,” by the federal and provincial governments, WDBA principal spokesman Mark Butler said. About $200 million has been spent on early site preparation at the Canadian POE and $150 million on the U.S. port of entry. This excludes property acquisitions.
What has the $350 million paid for?
On the Canadian side, the POE footprint is well defined by site clearing and installation of one million tonnes of granular fill, building to nine metres at the Ojibway Parkway, where an overpass linking the POE to the Herb Gray Parkway will start construction next year. Moreover, there has been massive utility relocations, including removing 11 overhead transmission towers and burying 7.5 kms of electrical cable underground. A perimeter access road, storm water management ponds and a new pumping station have been, or are being, built.
The tour on the U.S. side showed active work removing a rail spur connecting to a cement plant.
While the Canadian access to the bridge is already completed or well underway, not so on the American side.
But officials said preliminary work has already started on Interstate 75 and pointed to several pieces of infrastructure that will take shape. This includes the access ramps east and west from the POE to I-75, five reconstructed street overpasses over I-75, and four new pedestrian overpasses. Some utility relocation is also underway.
Reporters were also given more information about the configurations of the Customs plazas within the POEs.
The U.S. side will have 36 primary booths, likely divided evenly between commercial and passenger vehicles. In Canada, there will be 24 booths, also similarly divided. There will be secondary truck inspections on site, unlike at the Ambassador Bridge where the facility is three kilometers down the road.
Because of various factors – geography, and demands by U.S. border security – the U.S. POE will be slightly larger than the Canadian POE – 60 hectares (140 acres) compared to 53 hectares (130 acres). But all tolls, regardless of direction, will be collected on the Canadian side, since Canada is financing the project.
There will be various tolling options.
“We’re looking at all types of tolling mechanisms to see what works best,” said Heather Grondin, another WDBA spokesperson. These include automatic tolling, dedicated trucks lanes, and fleet accounts. “The concept is to move traffic through as quickly as possible,” she said.
Meanwhile, the rival Ambassador Bridge, in September, obtained conditional approval from the Canadian government to build a new six-lane span, a project independent of this project, WDBA officials said. No timeline has been announced.