WINDSOR, Ont. - Some might call the proliferation of proposed solutions to the Windsor traffic problem, including another bridge, a renovated rail tunnel and new highway infrastructure, an embarrassment of riches.
WINDSOR, Ont. – Some might call the proliferation of proposed solutions to the Windsor traffic problem, including another bridge, a renovated rail tunnel and new highway infrastructure, an embarrassment of riches.
But others might just call it an embarrassment, period, that more than a year after the federal and provincial governments committed $300 million to a short-term solution, nothing has been done to solve the increasingly troublesome transborder traffic problem in Windsor.
Since then, there have been two elections, provincial and municipal, a change of prime minister and a major federal cabinet shuffle resulting in a change of transport minister as well.
The Windsor problem, meanwhile, became the focus of a binational committee (U.S.-Canada) to study long-term solutions, as well as a federal-provincial nine-point plan that never got off the ground.
But there may be a light, albeit ever so tiny, at the end of the tunnel.
Last month the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced they’ve finally agreed on a few improvements on which to spend the promised $300 million.
Five initial project investments have been agreed upon, including:
Improvements to the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel Plaza. The improvements would do little for truck traffic directly, although they would make it easier for commuter traffic to move through downtown Windsor. The plaza on the Canadian side would be expanded and an automated version of NEXUS (a US/Canada customs processing program for regular commuters) would be implemented. Preliminary designs for the expansion have been in the works for some time now. What’s new is that the governments have committed part of the $300 million to paying for it. Price tag: $30 million.
The construction of a pedestrian overpass near the intersection of Huron Church Road and Girardot Street by Assumption High School to improve the safety and convenience of residents and children in the community. A woman was killed at that intersection last fall, by a truck whose driver said he never saw her. City officials are hoping to get this project completed by fall, in time for school starting up again. Price tag: $3 million.
The final design and construction of an overpass or underpass for the rail line that crosses Walker Road near Grand Marais Road, which will also be the site of a future US Customs X-ray facility for Detroit-bound rail cars. Also the completion of an Environmental Assessment for another overpass or underpass for rail at Howard Road in the hopes construction will begin on that in fall. Overpasses or underpasses at rail crossings are part of the scheme to reduce traffic backups when rail cars loaded with auto parts from the Daimler-Chrysler plant make their frequent trips to Detroit and back. Price tag: $15 million (for the first construction and the Environmental Assessment).
Improvements to the Industrial Drive/Huron Church Road intersection to support the development of a pre-processing facility on Industrial Drive. The pre-processing facility is the one the Ambassador Bridge opened in Windsor early this year, where trucks are forced to turn left off Huron Church Road to get into the plaza and left to get back out on Huron Church Road. The renovations would make getting in and out of the plaza easier, thereby improving traffic flow along Huron Church Road, say city officials. Price tag: $250,000.
The implementation of intelligent transportation systems along corridors leading to border crossings (e.g. changeable electronic message signs) in order to maximize the efficient operation of the network. Given the painfully obvious inadequacy of the so-called network now, one would assume the signs would be offering guidance along corridors that will come into being at some time in the future. City officials say this is indeed the case, but the money has been set aside anyway, even though the placement and number of signs has not yet been determined. Price tag: a whopping $30 million.
Total price tag: $68,250,000.
An implementation committee to get the wheels in motion on the above projects is slated to be struck this spring, said Norma Coleman, with Windsor’s policy and intergovernmental affairs department.
But as for the remainder of the $300 million destined for a short-term solution, chances are it’s not going to be spent anytime soon.
The agreements listed above are just the result of Phase One of the ongoing discussions between federal, provincial and municipal parties, explained Coleman.
When Phase Two will be complete is anyone’s guess.
“I know public consultation will be part of it,” said Coleman. “And then council has committed itself to making some hard decisions.”
If previous dealings with Windsor residents vis–vis proposed projects for a more complete solution for transborder traffic are any indication, those decisions will be very hard indeed.
The fact is, for every proposal on the table, there are residents and/or circumstances opposing it.
Take for example, the proposal for a second bridge, put forward by both Mich-Can International Bridge Co. (a new company formed expressly to build the bridge) and the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge.
While Ambassador Bridge officials say they’ve dropped the project in the short term because the Ambassador is only operating at 58 per cent capacity, Mich-Can is still pushing for a $600 million three mile four-lane bridge across the Detroit River about three miles south of the existing bridge.
And while both companies play the land-grabbing game on both sides of the river, in preparation for the day a second bridge does get the go-ahead (Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation predicts that will be in 2011), residents have made it clear they’re not keen on that happening, ever. The question remains, how do you build a bridge and provide a direct route up to it, as well as the needed plaza space, without moving/disturbing homeowners?
Then there’s the proposal for the conversion of the 100-year-old rail tunnel – the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership – a joint venture of Canadian Pacific and Borealis, a subsidiary of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). The proposal involves converting the rail tunnel for truck use. Borealis is willing to spend $450 million to build the tunnel and wants $150 million of the government’s $300 million to build a highway along the old railway corridor leading up to it. The company has also proposed that U.S. and Canadian Customs could share a facility on the Windsor side of the corridor.
Anyone who drives a truck understands the impracticality of tunnel travel due to size and weight restrictions and load type (e.g. dangerous goods), and the problems that could be caused by truck breakdowns underground. Not to mention the fact that residents in the rail corridor area have already voiced their opposition to its conversion to a highway. (“Say NO to DRTP was a popular rallying cry during the last municipal election, an election during which former Mayor Mike Hurst, rumoured to have supported the project, was ousted. He was subsequently named CEO of the tunnel project.) And never mind the political implications of having U.S. Customs inspectors on Canadian soil. As one critic put it: “Would they be allowed to carry guns?”
Be that as it may, OMERS bought the tunnel (along with CP) and with its sizeable membership, wields considerable political clout, especially with a federal election coming up. It remains to be seen whether that clout will prevail.
Ambassador bridge officials, for their part, insist the real solution to Windsor’s traffic woes does not lie on Canada’s side of the bridge.
“The problem is the plazas in Detroit, the staffing levels and the primary inspection booths,” said Skip McMahon, director of special projects.
That’s why the bridge is shelling out some of its own money (an estimated $3 to $5 million) to enlarge (and possibly reposition) its Detroit side plaza, which will be linked directly to the I-75, said McMahon.
The completion date for the plaza and link is November 2006, he sai
As for the Windsor side, Ambassador bridge officials have suggested turning Talbot Road into a real highway, flanked by local service roads and crossed by overpasses, then diverting cross border traffic to a dedicated road, away from Huron Church. Of course, the cost of doing so would be on the government’s tab, as would the cost of buying an estimated 80 homes that line the road.
Of course residents and business groups are also opposed to this plan.
Residents along Talbot Road worry they won’t get good value for their homes if they agree to sell them so the highway can be built. Businesses along Huron Church are worried they’ll lose some of their transborder customers.
But while truck and car traffic can be more easily separated, separating people from their homes is not as easy, said Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis.
“We’re dealing with a very sensitive issue – we have peoples homes to deal with,” said the mayor. “There’s been open discussion about those concerns in the past and there will be in the future.”
What’s heartening is that all three levels of government are sitting down together to discuss the matter, said Francis.
“Our new approach is far superior,” Francis said. “It’s much more collaborative and it focuses much more on addressing community and regional needs – including less congested streets. More importantly, it recognizes the dual role of Windsor as both a community in its own right and as the largest Canada-U.S. gateway.”
Whether this new collaborative approach manages to survive the looming federal election remains to be seen.The health of Canada’s most lucrative trade corridor will depend on it.