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Trucking industry wary of tunnel link to Detroit crossing

WINDSOR, Ont. - As Windsor politicians apply pressure for a tunnel as the new access route between Hwy. 401 and a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit, representatives of Ontario's trucking industry...

WINDSOR, Ont. – As Windsor politicians apply pressure for a tunnel as the new access route between Hwy. 401 and a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit, representatives of Ontario’s trucking industry are wary they will have to pay the cost of what they consider a high-priced project, and are opposed to a tunnel because of the safety hazards they say it will create.

The four government (Ottawa, Ontario, Washington, Michigan) international consortium, represented by the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project, has now tabled cost estimates for three types of construction for the new limited-access six-lane freeway that will run more than 12 km, providing an alternative to existing congested Hwy. 3 and Huron Church Rd., which take traffic to and from the Ambassador Bridge.

The group said a surface roadway would cost $620-$920 million, a sunken roadway $1-$1.4 billion, and a tunnel, $3.8 billion. The DRIC is expected to make its final selection of the route, type of construction, location of a Canadian Customs plaza, and actual bridge crossing, by the middle of this year. The bridge would be operational by 2015.

DRIC had earlier examined 15 possible bridge locations but narrowed that to three in an area approximately three kilometres south of the Ambassador Bridge. The five proposed access routes connecting the bridge to Hwy. 401 would be either on top of or running alongside much of the existing Hwy. 3/Huron Church corridor, turning west before the existing E.C. Row Expressway and sweeping west and north to the new Customs plaza and bridge. If the tunnel option was chosen it would likely run only six kilometres under the most developed sections of land – Howard Ave. to Malden Rd.

The tunnel option has increasingly become a ’cause celebre’ in Windsor, with Mayor Eddie Francis, Essex County Warden Nelson Santos and Windsor West New Democratic Party MP Brian Masse, his party’s official border critic, endorsing the tunnel over an open roadway.

And DRIC itself has been criticized for being biased against the tunnel by purposely inflating its price, emphasizing the fact Nitrogen Oxides from truck emissions would be dispersed by ventilation stacks over a wider area than under the other two options, and suggesting it would be more difficult to tunnel the route because of poor soil conditions and a high water table.

“They are setting up the tunnel option to fail,” Francis said after the report was released. “They have emphasized the negative rather than give it an unbiased and fair treatment in comparison to other options.”

That was denied by DRIC’s Dave Wake, who works for the provincial transportation ministry border planning office. Wake said all the options would be treated equally, noting an environmental assessment is still ongoing. “We’re going to do the right thing here,” he said, indicating additional tunnel costs are related to the more complex nature of tunnel construction, including digging and equipping the enclosed roadway with ventilation.

But while politicians and activists have been campaigning for the tunnel, trucking industry representatives were decidedly suspicious of it or outright against it.

Doug Switzer, manager of government relations for the Ontario Trucking Association, said the price tag gives him cause for concern, “whether it will come out of government revenues or whether it will be something that someone is going to try to recoup through tolls.”

Switzer said the industry would have a “serious problem” if it had to pay for much of the bill through, for example, high tolls, “not only because it would be an added cost but it would defeat the whole purpose” by effectively forcing traffic back to the Ambassador Bridge or to Sarnia/Port Huron’s Bluewater Bridge.

Karen Richards, senior Customs administrator with Cambridge-based Challenger Motor Freight Inc., asked how the costs would be recouped.

“If they’re going to make it higher tolls, they’re going to find that carriers won’t use it. We’ll just go around and use the existing (bridge) that we already have because they’re not going to get rid of that,” she said.

Steve Ondejko, president of Windsor area hauler Onfreight Logistics, feared the increased potential for tunnel crashes compared to on open roads.

“If there’s an accident or major accident a tunnel limits the ability to work on the accident – fires and whatever that might be,” he said. “Tunnels, from a safety perspective, are probably not the pick that truckers might make.”

DRIC says tunnel driving imposes limited visibility due to tunnel walls and light changes entering and exiting the tunnel, but a tunnel eliminates weather as a factor and would slow speed due to increased driver attention and slower tunnel speeds. And it says that while “the consequences of catastrophic crashes” in a tunnel “are greater than on an open road” such incidents are “infrequent” and occur at no greater frequency “than on an open road.”

That didn’t convince John Smith, president and CEO of Simcoe-based Bruce. R. Smith Ltd.

“You’ve got to think about all kinds of things that could happen and could shut down the whole structure,” he said. “Because if you had an explosion or if you had a mass fire with plastics…how do you clean it up? Whereas with a surface mount you can pull the equipment away and free the traffic up.”

The decision about tolls hasn’t been determined, Mark Butler, a consortium spokesman for the federal government, said.

But, he added, “clearly there will be some sort of toll structure” on the bridge and rates would be set at what “the competition” – such as the Ambassador Bridge – would be charging.

Butler said tolls would also have to be worked out with the State of Michigan, which will own half of the bridge. As for also charging tolls on the approach route, Butler said that remains undecided.

Given the expedited access the road will provide “there might be a premium that will be charged for that,” he said.

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