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Ambassador Bridge officials could play role in Peace Bridge future No peace in bridge debate

WINDSOR, Ont. - The company that owns the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor, Ont. and Detroit, Mich. could play a key role in building a new link between Fort Erie, Ont. and Buffalo, N.Y.Ambassador Br...

TAKEOVER TARGET?: The Peace Bridge could see a change in ownership.(Niagara Falls Review photo)
TAKEOVER TARGET?: The Peace Bridge could see a change in ownership.

(Niagara Falls Review photo)

WINDSOR, Ont. – The company that owns the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor, Ont. and Detroit, Mich. could play a key role in building a new link between Fort Erie, Ont. and Buffalo, N.Y.

Ambassador Bridge officials have met with several political figures – primarily on the U.S. side of the Niagara River – about potential solutions for the Niagara span, confirms Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co. and Canadian Transit Co., which run the Canadian half of the Ambassador Bridge. A decision on the involvement of Ambassador management could be made within the year, he adds.

The Ambassador Bridge has been run as a profit-making enterprise since it was completed in 1929. But the Peace Bridge is operated by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority (or Peace Bridge Authority), a public non-profit agency with members from Canada and New York State.

The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest border crossing between Canada and the U.S., carrying 13 million vehicles a year, including 13,000 trucks per day. Slightly less than 8 million vehicles (5,000 to 6,000 trucks per day) used the Peace Bridge in 1999.

Until 1992 it was the Peace Bridge that held the distinction as the nation’s busiest commercial crossing.

Stamper says his management team was invited to Buffalo in the midst of a groundswell of opposition – almost exclusively on the U.S. side of the span – to a Peace Bridge Authority proposal to twin the existing bridge.

“We didn’t go there looking for an opportunity,” he said. But New York political figures such as Democratic senators Daniel Moynihan and Charles Schumer wanted to hear suggestions.

Studies had been completed, permits obtained and construction was on the verge of starting when the plan to twin the Peace Bridge met opposition from several quarters. Community groups and politicians, including Buffalo city council, raised questions about the environmental assessment process, land easement rights and, not insignificantly, what the future bridge should look like. These groups decried the Peace Bridge Authority plan for a comparatively utilitarian bridge. Instead, they want a “signature span” that would be a modernized link between the two countries and a symbol of civic pride.

The issues came to a head in March when a community review panel with backing from groups on both sides of the issue rejected an independent engineering review that had concluded the twinning proposal was cheapest, most environmentally appropriate and quickest to build.

On the legal front, the Peace Bridge Authority also was blocked by the New York Supreme Court, which sided with three lawsuits brought by community groups and the City of Buffalo over environmental assessments, and barred construction. The third blow was a decision by Buffalo city council to withdraw shore easement rights it had earlier granted for the second span.

Peace Bridge officials have since appealed the court’s ruling and sued the city over the easement rights.

It was after the court decision that Ambassador officials were contacted by Schumer’s office.

The Ambassador team has made a name for itself with a series of aggressive initiatives, many of which directly affect truck traffic. For example, the bridge company built an off-site Canadian truck inspection facility to reduce plaza congestion, a new truck exit and inspection facility on the U.S. side of the border, and a new Canada Customs facility and duty free shops on both sides of the span. Bridge management is also working with Canadian and U.S. governments to improve highway access to bridge ramps. And the bridge was selected under NAFTA to install an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), using advanced technology to automate customs, toll collection and generally improve the flow of cargo.

Stamper also pointed out that his bridge and its three lanes (a fourth lane is closed for painting crews) handles more than twice the amount of commercial traffic as the Peace Bridge and its three lanes. But, he says, “with less problems.”

For the Peace Bridge Authority, the fight for a new bridge is nothing short of a fight for survival. Any proposal by the Ambassador Bridge to take over the Niagara River link would include paying off the Peace Bridge’s debt and dissolving the Peace Bridge Authority which was set up to assume the debt of a private bridge company that went out of business in the Great Depression.

Should Ambassador Bridge management win a contract to build a new link, Stamper said the first priority would be to improve the existing span’s flow of traffic, “maximize the throughput of what you have that (current management) are not doing.” They would then build a new link, likely in another location, for about $100 million

While U.S. politicians may welcome the Ambassador Bridge plans as one of several proposals for a new link, the Peace Bridge Authority itself is less than thrilled by the idea. U.S. co-manager Earl Rowe says the Ambassador proposal is a non-starter. He said legislation doesn’t allow a private company to take over the bridge debt.

But what angers him most is that the Ambassador Bridge’s intervention “muddies the water. It implies a private sector solution could somehow be done quicker, more effectively and be managed better. That’s absolute nonsense.”

Rowe scoffs at the Ambassador Bridge’s supposed greater expertise. He said the Peace Bridge Authority has superior bridge management practices both in terms of operations and technology. For example, he said, the Peace Bridge pre-clears more truckers than any other Canada-U.S. border crossing. After its new Commercial Vehicle Processing Center (CVPC) opened in November, the rate of pre-clearance increased to 86 per cent from 64 per cent. “We take a lot of pride in it. It’s an innovation.”

And, Rowe adds, the Ambassador Bridge charges the highest truck tolls, and charges autos traveling in both directions. The Peace Bridge does not. n

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