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More Customs Staff, Inspection Lanes Ease Windsor-Detroit Border Crossing

WINDSOR, Ont. - Major truck tie-ups have almost become a thing of the past as additional processing lanes and U.S. Customs staff have taken the edge off post-Sept. 11 backlogs at the Ambassador Bridge...


ROAD TO IMPROVEMENT: The Windsor-Detroit crossing has seen some improvements.
ROAD TO IMPROVEMENT: The Windsor-Detroit crossing has seen some improvements.

WINDSOR, Ont. – Major truck tie-ups have almost become a thing of the past as additional processing lanes and U.S. Customs staff have taken the edge off post-Sept. 11 backlogs at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor.

“We’ve been very good for the past two-and-a-half months,” Skip McMahon, director of special projects for the Canadian Transit Co., which runs the Canadian half of the bridge, told Truck News. “We’ve had very few backups of any significance and when we have a backup of significance we tend to clear that backup a lot quicker than we were in the past.”

McMahon said this is attributable to various factors: newly-hired U.S. Customs staff going through a “learning curve” and becoming more efficient processing trucks; the bridge company working with local police to expedite low risk truck traffic such as FAST (Free and Secured Trade) registered trucks through the bridge’s left-hand-lane; more trucks using the bridge’s pre-processing centre just off Hwy. 401 in London and therefore being expedited quicker when they arrive in Detroit; and better utilization of additional customs’ processing lanes the bridge company has constructed over the past two years.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the bridge had six customs primary inspection lanes on the Detroit side. By Sept. 1 of this year, when a further four lanes were expected to open, the number climbed to 13, McMahon said.

He called building the additional lanes, which he declined to put a price tag on, “strictly a bridge decision” to improve truck flow. But he said they were constructed after “an agreement with U.S. Customs to staff them.”

Other reasons for the lack of major truck backlogs this summer along Huron Church Rd., which leads to the bridge, include the reduction in the American terror alert status from code orange to yellow, company manufacturing shutdowns during the summer vacation months and the general slowdown of the U.S. economy.

Daily truck flow “has not been building up,” McMahon said, but remains slightly below 2002 numbers. At that time truck volume was sometimes reaching 13,000 (6,500 in each direction) daily. Still, the bridge is today holding its own with commercial traffic, compared to passenger vehicle numbers, which are “down significantly.” McMahon said it’s “been awhile” since the bridge hit 13,000 “but 12,500, 12,600, 12,700 are not uncommon at all.”

The flat-lined but continuing healthy numbers also contrast with the tremendous growth the bridge saw in truck traffic in the mid to late-1990s, coinciding with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But, contrary to popular belief, said McMahon, the back-ups since Sept. 11 – which sometimes found drivers waiting several hours in line had “nothing to do” with volumes but “everything to do” with the increased amount of surveillance that U.S. Customs has brought to the system based on the attacks of Sept. 11.”

Those back-ups weren’t just a headache for drivers – they became a major civic problem in Windsor, generating scores of complaints from residents, motorists and businesses about truck fumes, the blocking of city intersections and concerns about motorist and pedestrian safety.

The complaints generated a $300 million injection of joint federal-provincial funding to construct a short-term solution to the truck back-up woes. And after considerable debate and public forums which saw several new truck route scenarios rejected, the government committee charged with implementing the plan chose a new east side link from Hwy. 401 to a widened E.C. Row Expressway.

The link skirts the southern fringe of Windsor to Huron Church Rd., which itself will see improvements such as underpasses or overpasses built at key intersections.

Improvements to the plaza at the Windsor-Detroit tunnel are also planned.

McMahon wouldn’t say if the changes mean a permanent end to back-ups – indeed there was one the first week of August when drivers waited as long as an hour-and-half – but he did say the improvements are aimed at being “prepared for all contingencies.” He added that “history has shown us that things happen.”

Kevin Weeks, Michigan’s director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the true test of how new programs like FAST – which provides carriers and drivers with the means to clear customs more quickly – will come next time there is a heightened terror alert.

“I think that’s when we can really measure the benefits of the program, when we’re at alert level orange.”

Weeks said more and more truck companies, especially from the automotive sector, are signing on to FAST. “Every day our enrolment centers are filled with new applicants that are picking up their FAST ID cards and companies seem to be gravitating to that program.”

Meanwhile, McMahon said that while truck back-ups on the Canadian side have gotten almost exclusive media attention, over the past several months “we’ve had just as many backups if not more into Canada.” And while the backups don’t go through local Detroit neighbourhoods, he said “it’s worse – they’re on an Interstate highway where vehicles are doing 60-70 miles per hour.”

McMahon said the bridge company is working “very diligently” with Canadian Customs to try to get more staffing on the Canadian side. More customs lanes could also be in the offing.

“We are working on a project right now to try to give them a few more lanes, so you’ll hear about that in the not too distant future.”

In the meantime, truck volumes have reportedly declined at two other major Ontario border crossings as well. Recent statistics from the Bridge and Tunnel Operators Association indicate that first half truck volumes for 2003 are lower at three of the four major Ontario border crossings than they were for the first half of 2002.

Of the four major crossings (Windsor-Detroit, Sarnia-Port Huron, Fort Erie-Buffalo and Queenston-Lewiston), only the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia-Port Huron experienced higher traffic volumes in the first half of 2003.

Traffic at the Blue Water Bridge increased by 23,400 trucks in the first half of 2003 over last year’s figures. Combined, the other three crossings witnessed a decrease in traffic volumes in the area of 66, 500 trucks for the same time period.


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