The Trouble With Windsor

by Ingrid Phaneuf

The following is the first installment of a three-part series on border-related traffic problems in Windsor.

WINDSOR, Ont. – It’s 4 p.m., Feb. 3, 2004, in Windsor, Ont., but it might as well be Sept. 12, 2001 as far as transborder truck traffic is concerned.

The sun is shining but JIT prospects are gloomy. Trucks are backed up along Huron Church Rd. (the residential street leading up to the bridge) and Talbot Rd. (Highway 3) almost to the 401.

Trucks are also backed up along Wyandotte St. on both sides of Huron Church Rd., into the heart of suburbia and the downtown core.

More trucks are starting to back up along EC Row Expressway – yet another truck route/detour drivers are taking in the hopes of jumping the line down Huron Church Rd.

It’s like the Fergus Truck Show fairground, but no one’s smiling.

“Holy cow, I haven’t seen it this bad since 9/12, or 9/13,” says Skip McMahon, director of special projects for the Ambassador Bridge, the bridge that carries 24 per cent of Canada’s transborder truck traffic to and from the U.S.

McMahon is the external affairs point man for the bridge, charged with getting the message out about what’s wrong with Windsor, and has agreed to take Truck News on a tour of the facility and its surrounding infrastructure, including the roads leading up the bridge.

He’s giving the grand tour of the traffic mess in his late ’80s New Yorker, complete with burgundy plush seats and a tendency to overheat in below zero temperatures. The constant beeping from the dash is due to the car doors.

“They come loose when we turn,” McMahon says.

If working at the bridge has made him rich, he’s not flaunting it.

The bridge’s former general manager is not a “suit,” in fact he’s wearing a rather shabby old sweater.

But he is a man who’s obsessed (as is anyone who has anything to do with the border) with the traffic problem in Windsor.

The car swings out from Todd Lane, left onto Huron Church, in front of a truck already halfway across the intersection, caught there when the light changed.

Taking a green in traffic like this is a crapshoot.

At the Huron Church and Cabana Rds. (Todd Lane on the west), where Talbot Rd. ends, a trucker gets out of his rig and strolls down the street to the next rig in line, cupping his hands in front of his face to light a cigarette as he goes.

There is another green light, but nothing is moving.

There is no point in sitting around in the cab.

A school bus idles further back, where the lanes narrow to two. Up ahead, even the trucks with placards allowing them to drive in the left lane are caught in the gridlock.

“It’s just a matter of time before they shut the left lane to truck traffic,” says McMahon.

The local police do just that when it gets like this, he explains, to allow for regular traffic to get through – traffic like school buses and parents in minivans, off to pick their kids up from daycare, or pick up groceries or what-have-you.

“The Windsor police can close it whenever they want, in fact I’m surprised they haven’t closed it already,” says McMahon.

We turn off on a non-truck route side road, to get out of the mess on the main drag.

It’s easy to see why both the trucking industry and Windsor residents could become increasingly frustrated with the situation.

Even the truckers who’ve jumped through the hoops, who’ve gone to the trouble of stopping off at the bridge’s offsite pre-processing centre in London to pick up a placard, are waiting in line.

Other trucks without placards skip out in front of them, in the hopes police won’t catch them and send them to the very back – which will eventually stretch all the way back down Talbot Rd. and Highway 3 almost to the 401 – about eight kms, McMahon reports later.

Indeed, the placards themselves are a source of discontent and resentment for carriers, especially those who’ve been FAST-approved and who’ve required the same of their drivers, and whose loads have been pre-processed on one of several available line release programs (FAST, BRASS, N-CAP, PAPS).

These carriers are having an especially hard time understanding why they should have to stop and shell out five bucks for a placard, when they’ve already done everything that’s legally required of them.

They see the placard system as an opportunistic rip-off on the part of the bridge company and its pre-processing partner ViaSafe, and they’ve said as much on many occasions.

“What they don’t realize is that this all goes back to the Windsor police,” says McMahon.

“The police were only allowing trucks to drive in the centre lane. We convinced the police to allow trucks in the left lane if they were guaranteed to pass through faster.”

That means they have to be pre-processed and have proof of it, says McMahon.

“The only way to prove they’ve been pre-processed and the drivers and companies are FAST-approved is to get them placarded,” says McMahon.

Obviously the police stopping every single trucker to check his papers would only slow things down.

“So we worked out the placard system with the police, so they would open the left lane for trucks,” says McMahon. “Believe me, we’re not making any money on this. We’ve got to pay for the placards and we’ve got to pay for the staff to check to see if they have in fact been pre-processed.”

Chrysler, GM and Ford were sent 5,000 placards because they will be held responsible for making sure their carriers and drivers are FAST-approved, says McMahon.

“Believe me, those guys don’t want to screw this up.”

The reasoning is that the left lane will move faster with pre-processed trucks in it, given that U.S. Customs primary inspection booths ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER IN DETROIT would be able to move them through faster.

Let there be no mistake – the traffic problem in Windsor has much to do with how fast trucks are moving through U.S. Customs.

“If it’s taking just one more minute now since 9/11 to process a single truck through Customs, and there are 6,000 trucks to process, that’s 6,000 more minutes (100 more staff hours),” says McMahon.

Given that an average 6,000 trucks pass over the bridge into the U.S. daily, it doesn’t take long for them to back up, McMahon says.

“This doesn’t happen every day. But when it does happen, it happens fast.”

Indeed, at 1 p.m. when we initially set out on the driving tour, over the bridge to Detroit and back, the trucks had only just begun to line up on Huron Church Rd. and Wyandotte St. E.

By 4 p.m. it was an all out nightmare.

Trucks had their hoods up. Drivers were tinkering.

Maybe they overheated.

Or maybe the driver just saw an opportunity to fill up on windshield washer fluid.

McMahon is on the horn trying to find out what’s been going on in U.S. Customs.

What’s caused the hitch? There doesn’t even appear to be a special alert – orange, yellow, what have you.

“The alerts don’t make a difference to us,” says McMahon. “Orange, yellow, it doesn’t change much for us.”

We cross Huron Church again, cruise over to Maiden Rd. the site where the bridge is planning to open a second pre-processing centre, for trucks coming from the west.

“They can’t go to London to get their placards,” says McMahon. “This way we can have them pre-processed and they’ll move through faster.”

Again the message – the more trucks preprocessed, the faster the lines will move.

But the lines aren’t going anywhere fast today. One wonders how many will be forced to pull off somewhere and sleep in their cabs, so as not to be in violation of the new U.S. hours of service rules. One wonders how many will run out of time on the bridge itself.

“Yup, there are going to be trucks here until two or three in the morning,” McMahon says to someone over the phone.

Working until two or three in the morning is bad, even when you’re getting paid for it.

And many drivers aren’t.

The thought is depressing.

How on earth could things have gotten to this point?

How could a community allow this sort of situation to arise on a semi-regular basis?

The answer is less complicated than you might think.

– Get a breakdown of what’s behind
the mess in next month’s Truck News, in the second of this three part series on the trouble in Windsor.


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