Politics Hinder Windsor

by Ingrid Phaneuf

WINDSOR, Ont. – Just in case it wasn’t already absolutely clear to everyone, the Ontario Trucking Association’s manager of government relations Doug Switzer recently told the media: “The status quo isn’t working, it’s not working for the trucking industry, it’s not working for the Ontario businesses who rely on trucks to get their products to market, it’s not working for manufacturers who need to rely on trucks for the timely delivery of parts and materials, and it’s not working for the Windsor community.

“We need action and we need it now.”

Switzer had just recently joined a coalition of over a dozen concerned business and labour stakeholders from the Windsor/Essex region, in calling on the federal, provincial and municipal governments to get on with the job of improving the flow of truck traffic through Windsor headed for the U.S. border.

The coalition is far from alone. Everyone, including the federal and provincial transport ministers, the bridge and tunnel authorities and Windsor’s municipal government, not to mention its residents, agrees there’s a problem in Windsor.

Studies and proposed solutions to the problem abound. Federal and provincial monies ($300 million) have been promised. Every politician and his or her mother says he or she is on the case.

So how come transborder traffic in Windsor is still such a mess?

There are at least two answers to the question.

First, let it be known that the transborder traffic problem in Windsor was not newly minted as of 9/11.

In fact, it dates back much farther than that, according to Skip McMahon, director of special projects for the Ambassador Bridge.

McMahon hearkens back to the Canadian and U.S. government Auto Pact, basically an automotive free trade agreement, that ended up working out quite well for Canadian auto parts manufacturers and carriers.

(The 1965 agreement has been called Canada’s most successful trade agreement.)

That’s when the Ambassador Bridge became a major conduit for Canada’s burgeoning automotive industry.

“Back in those days, Customs had to open up the back of every single truck,” says McMahon.

A long time Windsor resident, McMahon remembers when Customs inspections caused post-9/11 type lineups as far back as the 1970s.

“We had backups through town until 2 or 3 a.m., and when the truck drivers started honking their horns, police were sent out to stop them from waking up the neighbourhood,” says McMahon.

But the problem of truck traffic in residential areas was present even before the Auto Pact.

That’s because the Windsor area already had over 100,000 residents by 1928. They were already there in 1929, when the Ambassador Bridge was built, and in 1930, when the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel came along.

And even more of them were there in the 1950s when the construction of the Trans-Canada highway was underway.

When the federal government asked Windsor area municipalities how they should go about linking up the highway to the bridge, no one could agree. Apparently, none of the area’s residents was enthusiastic about having a highway run by their homes.

The governments at the time let the matter lie. But the problem of truck traffic in residential areas only worsened with the years.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Act boosted trade and caused transborder truck traffic in Windsor to increase.

Growth continued almost all the way to 9/11.

“9/11 changed the world,” said Skip McMahon. “And nowhere did it change the world more than at the border crossings between Canada and the U.S.”

Since that fateful day, the backups along Huron-Church Rd. (not to mention the side streets truckers use to jump the line) have extended out to EC Row and to Hwy 401 on more than one occasion.

(Truck News published an account of just such a recent backup in its March edition.)

But governments, local, provincial and federal seem no closer to nailing down a solution.

This despite the publication of the above-mentioned federal/provincial nine-point plan, the creation of a binational (U.S./Canada) committee to study long term solutions and the promise of $300 million in federal and provincial funds for a short-term solution to ease the lives of residents and business alike.

It seems the chickens of the 1950s have come home to roost – the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) chickens who don’t want trucks running through or by their homes today anymore than they did in the 1950s.

This NIMBY phenomena in Windsor is one of the factors in the ongoing inability of Canadian politicians to find a workable traffic management solution at the nation’s busiest border crossing.

Just like in the 1950s, every time a solution is proposed for the transborder traffic problem in Windsor, a group of residents or business people come forward to protest it.

In fact, Windsor’s last election was run and won on it. The winning platform was simple – don’t support the solution your potential voters don’t like.

But the outcome is questionable – every single counsellor elected is against the solution that would affect residents of his or her community.

It’s a politician’s worst nightmare.

Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis swept to office last year on a platform that opposed one solution proposed by the federal and provincial governments.

The proposal at that time was to expand EC Row Expressway, upgrade the city’s most important roads to superhighways and turn vacant fields into truck “staging areas” where vehicles could be parked until called to the border. That’s what the $300 million was for.

The election was won, the plan was scuttled and the money is still waiting to be spent.

Nevertheless, Francis says he’s determined to come up with a “made-in-Windsor” solution.

“We need a solution yesterday. And from what I’ve seen, there’s a willingness on the part of both the federal and provincial governments to sit down and find the best one, in the short and long terms, through the binational process and the nine-point plan,” says Francis.

Indeed, the provincial government has been very vocal about its commitment to the cause.

“The government has stated its commitment to improving the border infrastructure, just as the minister has made it a key priority for himself and his ministry,” says David Ward, a spokesman for provincial Transport Minister Harinder Takhar.

But whatever the governments do to manage the traffic backups better, they’re powerless to change what causes them.

Which brings us to the second answer to the “Why is Windsor still so messed up?” question.

Post 9/11, U.S. Customs has been taking more time to process trucks.

Of course there were Customs-related slowdowns prior to Sept. 11. But thanks to 9/11, and the ensuing U.S. Patriot and Bioterrorism Acts, U.S. Customs processing at the borders has slowed down even more.

And for every extra minute tacked on to the processing of a single U.S. bound truck, there’s an extra minute spent waiting in line, over the bridge, down to Huron Church Road and side streets, all the way to the 401.

“The bridge isn’t over capacity,” says Skip McMahon. “It’s operating at 58 per cent. But if 6,000 trucks roll over the bridge per day, and every truck takes one more minute to process through Customs, that means Customs has to perform 100 more hours of work per day.”

Break it down – 100 more hours would amount to at least 10 more Customs officers working 10-hour days. And more primary inspection booths to accommodate them.

Yet four inspection booths, constructed and paid for by the Ambassador Bridge on land next to the Detroit side of the bridge (land the bridge company owns), stand empty and unused.

The four empty booths, completed in October 2003, added to the nine which already exist, would theoretically increase processing efficiency by nearly 50y per cent.

But the U.S. government has yet to agree to lease the booths from the bridge, despite the urging of U.S. Customs, says McMahon.

“It’s the GSA,” he says, as we drive by the booths on a tour of the bridge’s Detroit facilities. “They don’t want to lease the booths from us.”

The Government Services Administration’s job
is roughly the same as Public Works here in Canada, explains McMahon. GSA’s job is to administer the U.S. taxpayer’s money. Apparently, the GSA isn’t convinced leasing booths to speed up truck traffic on the Ambassador Bridge is in the best interests of U.S. taxpayers.

“U.S. Customs even says they’ll man them,” says McMahon as he pulls away. The GSA says it has plans to build its own booths, but the project could take up to six years, McMahon says, including the time it would take to obtain Congressional approval, purchase land and build booths.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, meanwhile, continues to publicly emphasize the importance of maintaining efficient trade routes while protecting U.S. citizens. n

– See next month’s edition of Truck News for a rundown of what’s been proposed for Windsor so far.

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