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Windsor border planners monitor toxic truck fumes

WINDSOR, Ont. - The agency representing four governments planning a new corridor to carry truck traffic from Hwy. 401 to a new river crossing between Windsor and Detroit has set up intensive air monit...

OVERUSED: A tunnel is being considered as an alternative to the overutilized Ambassador Bridge.

OVERUSED: A tunnel is being considered as an alternative to the overutilized Ambassador Bridge.

WINDSOR, Ont. – The agency representing four governments planning a new corridor to carry truck traffic from Hwy. 401 to a new river crossing between Windsor and Detroit has set up intensive air monitoring equipment along the existing truck route to obtain more specific readings on the current level of truck toxin emissions.

This, it says, will help determine whether the route should be a surface freeway, a sunken roadway or a tunnel to connect the approximately 12 km between existing Hwy. 401 and a new bridge that will be located somewhere west of the existing Ambassador Bridge. The decision is expected next year.

But area residents and corridor opponents suggest the measure is window dressing and that the agency representing the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project – which represents the Canadian and US governments along with the province of Ontario and state of Michigan – has already made up its mind and will choose a surface six lane expressway.

Dave Wake, planning officer with Ontario’s transportation ministry and a key DRIC official, told Truck News that the agency took this “extraordinary measure…to improve our understanding of current air quality conditions.”

But he acknowledged the decision came only after community pressure.

“We’d been hearing a lot from the community about air issues so we felt this was a very important concern to the people of Windsor,” he said.

The company DRIC chose to carry out the study, SENES Consultants Ltd. of Richmond Hill, Ont., is “well-respected” and are “recognized experts” in this field, Wake said.

The two monitoring stations are positioned along Highway 3/Talbot Rd. and Huron Church Roads – the current truck route between Hwy. 401 and Ambassador Bridge – one at Huron Church just north of Cabana Road and the other near Talbot and Cousineau roads.

“The focus here is on the existing Highway 3/Huron Church corridor,” he said. “I think this is the area (about which) we’ve been receiving the most questions and concerns from the public.”

The testing will sample nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and air toxins such as benzene and aldehydes.

Wake said data from the sampling, which could go on for a year, will be used to establish “baseline conditions” that route planners will use in evaluating what type of road will have the least impact on the environment.

Wake said other factors will also come into play, such as projected traffic volumes (already 12,000 trucks a day use the route), land use and engineering issues. This information will be entered into a computer to draw up a model to develop the best new route.

Regardless of the type of highway chosen – a surface road, sunken expressway or tunnel – all would be in close or immediate proximity to the existing route, except where the road would divert westward south of the E.C. Row Expressway to a new Customs clearance plaza before a final jog to the new bridge that in turn would end up in southwest Detroit with almost immediate access to Interstate 75 and southern Midwest destinations such as Toledo, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

Wake said DRIC planners have earmarked two slightly different routes for the surface highway, two separate routes for the depressed road and one route if a tunnel is built.

“So for each one of those we apply this computer model to tell us what the future air conditions will be,” he said.

Wake said generally speaking expressway modelling always takes projected air quality into account as part of an environmental assessment. But planners routinely use existing monitoring stations. In Windsor those were deemed too far away from the proposed DRIC route. The new site-specific monitoring is taking place “on a neighbourhood scale,” he said.

Indeed there are several residential areas and schools near the proposed route.

Wake said planners would take the samples and be “guided by existing standards” in federal and provincial environmental legislation in terms of what would be the best way to build the route – surface or sunken road or a tunnel.

But one organization lobbying for a tunnel over a surface or sunken expressway questions how DRIC will use the data, such as establishing a baseline over which emissions would be too great.

“At what point (will) it say we can’t impede the atmosphere any longer?” Al Teshuba, the co-chair of Choose Tunnelling, said. “It could just be cosmetic to say that we did do an analysis.”

Also, Teshuba said, the Windsor area suffers from some of the heaviest pollution and highest cancer rates in Canada and residents living near the existing truck route often find soot from diesel exhaust on their houses and in their swimming pools.

“They can do the tests but what does it mean for the residents?” he asked.

Whatever the findings, Teshuba’s group advocates tunneling because new technology would capture the emissions from trucks that are ventilated into shafts, in turn scrubbing them and, it says, eliminating 85% of the pollutants.

At a conference his group organized this past summer Teshuba said engineering experts estimated tunneling would cost an additional $1.5 billion in project costs. No cost estimate has been placed on a surface road although unofficial estimates have put it at just under or over $1 billion.

Teshuba says tunneling would be worth it not only because of less respiratory and cancer rates but because it would “save on the devaluation of property” as the tunnel would abut less on nearby residential and business properties.

Teshuba’s group, which has members from the retail and hospitality businesses along the Huron Church Rd. commercial strip, also wants a tunnel to be used by trucks only. He said passenger vehicles could therefore still use Talbot and Huron Church roads and the Ambassador Bridge, which itself is proposing a new span in addition to the aging 77-year-old current bridge.

“We want (cars) to have the opportunity to access our businesses,” he said. “It’s one of (Windsor’s) competitive advantages.”

And Kam Pandya, the co-chair of an area citizens’ group, is pessimistic the more intense air monitoring, whatever the results, will have any effect on DRIC’s plans, particularly in the form of a tunnel. “I just don’t believe it will happen,” he said.

Pandya suggests DRIC is fast-tracking what likely will be a surface route that will have a major impact on residential and commercial neighbourhoods and cause massive traffic disruption while the road is being built.

“This seems to be (DRIC’s) biggest concern, how to meet their timeline,” he said.

Both Pandya and Teshuba give a nod to an alternative proposal in another part of the city put forward by a private consortium backed by the Canadian Pacific Railway and Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), which calls for an exclusive truck tunnel from Hwy. 401 to Detroit, with an option for a road to surface and carry traffic to the widened Ambassador Bridge.

The so-called Detroit River Tunnel Partnership (DRTP) would use an existing railway right of way under which the tunnel would be built.

A major problem, however, is that DRIC, in evaluating as many as 15 earlier proposed cross-border routes, discounted DRTP as being unworkable.

But Teshuba said when DRIC rejected the DRTP it was for an earlier DRTP proposal that would have had trucks use the surface right of way itself.

The DRTP’s revised proposal is that the route would be tunnelled.

“I think the DRTP should be properly considered,” he said.

But DRIC’s Wake said even a DRTP tunnel would not solve engineering issues that would inevitably result.

He said construction of a tunnel along the DRTP’s narrow right-of-way – essentially consisting of two railroad tracks – so close to several suburban neighbourhoods, would result in “a lot of negative impacts” on the community.

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