Special Report: Windsorites trounce truck route proposals

by Ron Stang

WINDSOR, Ont. – Windsor City Council embodied the spirit of more than 1,300 people who attended three public meetings when it told provincial and federal officials that Canada’s southernmost city wants no part of any proposed truck route that would carve up Windsor neighborhoods.

The council also unanimously called on the province and Ottawa to give it a seat at the table in further talks on how to spend $300 million which Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Ontario Premier Ernie Eves announced in September to be dedicated to medium term (five years or more) solutions to a border access problem that has seen thousands of trucks clog city streets in recent years waiting to get access to the border. This has been especially true in the year-and-a-half since September 2001 and the massive border delays brought on by security concerns in the United States following that month’s terrorist attacks.

Even before Sept. 11, as a result of tremendous commercial transport expansion under the free trade agreements, some 13,000 trucks per day were crossing the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, North America’s busiest commercial crossing, But the problem is that they have had to access it through the sole connecting route from Highway 401 to the border – a mostly municipal boulevard known as Huron Church Road that contains more than a dozen traffic lights, the only ones a long haul trucker would encounter, say, between Toronto and Miami or Toronto and Mexico.

The governments, acknowledging the congestion problem’s urgency, gave ministry planners 60 days to come up with recommended solutions. This was completed the Friday before Christmas. However, the ink was hardly dry when the proposals were greeted with outrage from Windsor’s Mayor Mike Hurst, as well as by various neighborhoods’ residents. They had already been organizing to oppose several private solutions to the truck problem which the government report also ended up endorsing.

The planners’ report, called Windsor Gateway – An Action Plan for the 21st Century, written by what’s known as the Canada-Ontario Joint Management Committee of six bureaucrats from Queen’s Park and Ottawa, proposed a variety of measures – from improved Customs’ pre-clearance technology to electronic road signage to grade separation at busy intersections that would eliminate traffic lights. But what really sparked Windsorites’ wrath were recommendations for three new priority truck routes.

One route would be a new connecting road between Hwy. 401 and the city’s E.C. Row Expressway using Windsor’s east side Lauzon Parkway. A second would be a dedicated truck parkway, mimicking an earlier private proposal by the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership (DRTP) – which residents already had voiced vigorous opposition to – which would move trucks along an existing rail corridor connecting Hwy 401 to the E.C. Row through the city’s southern suburbs.

The third would be widening E.C. Row itself from two to three lanes in each direction to accommodate traffic from the other two connecting routes. The committee said these three routes could in turn link up to improved bridge access or a new truck tunnel under the Detroit River, the latter also proposed by the DRTP.

But Windsor Mayor Hurst denounced the proposals unequivocally, going as far as saying he was “stunned” by their disregard for how they would divide city neighborhoods and add to the city’s already notorious air pollution. That is because they would shift trucks from Huron Church Rd. to as many as 10 residential areas and therefore through much of the heart of the city and along the city-owned E.C. Row. “It cannot be supported and it will not be supported,” Hurst says. The city hired renowned Toronto environmental lawyer David Estrin to legally fight any attempt by Ottawa and Queen’s Park to impose the routes. “We want to come out saying to the powers that be that our objection is very, very serious,” the mayor says.

About the same time, a new city ratepayers group in South Windsor, through which the truck parkway would pass, sprang up. Virtually overnight the group organized press conferences, public meetings, and soon hundreds of homeowners’ front yards were sprouting protest “stop signs.” The unified protests from city hall and ratepayers came together at public meetings in late January and early February.

At one meeting called by the Joint Management Committee, some 400 people showed up to tell four of the six federal and provincial representatives on the panel, along with the city’s Liberal Member of Parliament, Susan Whelan – who had been shepherding the committee’s plan – to essentially go back to the drawing board.

Resident after resident condemned the proposals for what they said shuffles a problem that currently plagues just the west side of the city along Huron Church Rd., to wider geographic areas. Citing studies showing the city has terrible air quality and is a leader in cancer rates, one resident said, “We are the most polluted city in Canada already, let’s just not spread the pollution throughout the city.”

The government committee had also lent support to another existing proposal, put forward by the Ambassador Bridge company. This is to build a four km truck parkway through the city’s west end, complete with a large pre-clearance Customs plaza with U.S. Customs on site (still to be approved), and trucks then being sent securely over the bridge. But residents decried this as creating a “moat” around their immediate neighborhoods.

At the meeting, the trucking industry came in for its share of attention, if not at times drubbing.

Saying one train can replace as many as 300 trucks, James Armstrong of Transport 2000 flatly stated, “trains are environmentally friendly, trucks are not, and that is a fact of life.”

Earl Denham, a retired transport dispatcher, said he’s convinced truckers wouldn’t opt for a tunnel under the Detroit River, as the DRTP proposal envisions. He said he wasn’t sure if this was because of superstition on the drivers’ part or fear of being trapped in accidents. But, he said, “You can’t make them do something they don’t want to do.” In the end, city council voted unanimously to oppose the Joint Management Committee’s most controversial proposals – such as the DRTP segregated truck parkway making use of the rail corridor, and the Ambassador Bridge’s four km parkway, because of their impact on area neighborhoods.

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