Big Risk, Deaf Ears: The Ambassador Bridge

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Lord knows there’s been a word or three written lately about the Ambassador Bridge, that 75-year-old span that effectively turns the North American auto industry into a single unit. But I’m going to add a few more paragraphs anyway.

It’s the most important two-mile stretch of roadway on the continent, carrying a quarter of Canada’s total trade with the United States. And for the last 25 years it’s been owned by one gnarly little guy in Detroit. Manuel ‘Matty’ Moroun by name, he rules the bridge and thus, for all intents and purposes, controls $100 billion worth of international trade.

Would this be tolerated anywhere else in the developed world? Back in the middle ages, maybe, but in 2005?

I’m not going to dwell on Moroun here, since my chum Marco Beghetto has recently covered that angle in our printed magazine and on this site. Too bad, as I find old Matty hard to resist. In case you missed it, you’ll also find a few hundred words of Marco’s about the Sam Schwartz proposal to relieve the chaos in Windsor in last month’s issue.

I applaud the City of Windsor, by the way, for commissioning the not-inexpensive Schwartz study. But why a little city, and not a wealthy place either, should act constructively on this mess way before the federal and provincial governments say useful word number one is beyond me. It’s utterly shameful that the senior levels of government should still be dragging their feet while Windsor has funded a real proposal that almost everyone seems to like.

International trade is obviously a federal issue, after all, and in this case it’s very much a provincial one too. So why was it Windsor that acted? How can the politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa and Toronto live with themselves for letting this abominable situation continue for as long as it has without taking a single serious step forward?

The difference, of course, is that Windsor feels the pain of this appalling traffic congestion in a very immediate way. The fumes from thousands of idling diesel engines don’t reach Ottawa or Toronto. The feds and the provincials see this in a distant, theoretical way. They may well understand the threat to our livelihoods intellectually, but you’ve got to be in Windsor to feel it viscerally, in your gut. You don’t have to be a resident, though. You just have to stand on the main drag that runs up to the Ambassador any time on a Tuesday, probably the worst day of the week. Look south and you’ll see trucks nose to tail in two lanes for kilometres on end.

Better yet, ride with a trucker as he meets the back of that line and crawls toward the bridge at about 0.1 mph. Four hours later, ask him how on earth he’s going to be civil when he gets hassled — even a little bit — by the U.S. Customs agent who doesn’t like his paperwork. And finally, ask him how much he got paid for those four hours, plus however many more it took him to get out of the secondary inspection he had to endure because a shipper got lazy with the bills.

All of that congestion, all those delays, are killers on a good day. Now ask how vulnerable we are to an accident on the bridge or, perish the thought, a terrorist attack.

Believe it or not, even in this era of draconian post-9/11 security measures, Moroun controls that too. Last year the U.S. Customs Enforcement Team wanted to check trucks outbound to Canada after they exited the toll booths, but the bridge owner said “no”. A short legal battle ensued, but Matty won and there was no outbound enforcement. Incredibly, private property was seen to be sacrosanct. Even ahead of security.

The bridge is an obvious terrorist target, and until a second crossing is conceived and built, we’re mighty vulnerable. Meaning, the Canadian economy at large is at risk. Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence, has been harping about it for a while, but to no avail.

As to the Ambassador Bridge, he notes that trucks aren’t inspected until they’ve already crossed it, meaning they could easily carry a bomb onto the bridge and destroy it in a heartbeat. He wants much better security regimes on both sides of the bridge.

“If there’s a problem on the border, you’ll see a recession in Canada that will make the 1930s look like peanuts. The Americans will shut down,” he says, according to a recent story in The Windsor Star.

Ottawa, can we fix this please? Like now.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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