SPECIAL REPORT: Traffic guru greening path to new Windsor crossing

GreenLink would make Windsor the envy of the world,
promises Gridlock Sam Schwartz. (Photo Credit: Windsor Star).

WINDSOR, Ont. — It’s not often politicians, businesses, and environmentalists are in agreement. But in the beleaguered city of Windsor, many of them are generally hailing Sam Schwartz’s vision of a green-friendly dedicated truck route as the remedy to the region’s historic traffic woes.

Canada’s largest border city has for years been the true definition of an urban jungle. Especially to the west, lining the Ambassador Bridge to and from Detroit, it’s a somewhat chaotic batter of pavement and concrete, noisy cars and tractor-trailers, small businesses, and traffic-weary pedestrians all bookended by at a picturesque waterfront.

Enter “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, who has been called in (again) to restore some order. In fact, it’s the second time Schwartz has been hired by the city. The prominent former Manhattan traffic planner — who is credited with coining the term “gridlock” in the ’70s — was brought to Windsor in 2004 to study the most appropriate location for a new public bridge crossing. Now, after expanding on some of his previous recommendations, he’s back with GreenLink — a proposal to create an environmentally sensitive, dedicated truck highway from the 401 to the anticipated new bridge crossing site in the Ojibway industrial area.

The $1.6 billion GreenLink Windsor concept offers a six-kilometre, six-lane truck feeder route shadowing the currently overwhelmed Talbot Road-Huron Church Road corridor. About 65 percent of the artery will be tunneled below grade.

That, in fact, is the largest difference between Schwartz’s idea and the “parkway” plan floated by the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) study — a team of bureaucrats and government officials overseeing the new crossing and its supporting infrastructure. The DRIC concept only offers 25 percent tunneling and less parkland than GreenLink.

Schwartz’s truck route would be 65 percent tunneled
and lined with parks, which the greenies approve of.

It’s that latter point that has made Schwartz’s idea so popular with the general public and environmentally conscious politicians who say the DRIC concept doesn’t do much to fix Windsor’s air quality problems.

GreenLink, which is fully supported by Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis and a majority of city council, promises lush greenery covering the tunnels and overpasses. Much of the route would be insulated by parkland, which would include soccer fields, ice rinks and ponds. Most, importantly, says Schwartz, his plan would link neighboring communities rather than divide them.

“The community gets a highway that’s designed to enhance the region and link communities that have been separated for years by walls of queuing trucks and traffic. It’s never been pleasant to go back and forth between communities in Windsor,” Schwartz tells TodaysTrucking.com in an interview.

“At the same time, for trucks, it solves the long-standing problem created 50 years ago when the highway ended several miles away from the waterfront (and border). Truckers will now have a high-speed, limited access and fully controlled highway, with no traffic signals. And it’ll have enough capacity to take us, I predict, to the end of the century.”

While most green activists like Sam’s plan, others, who want the route to be completely tunneled, insist it doesn’t go far enough. Some locals suggest that the tunnels be fitted with scrubbers to capture pollutants and gases.

Schwartz tells us that his team researched the possibility, but after doing the calculations, they found that scrubbers would make “virtually no difference, primarily because pollution levels don’t reach the kind of density in which they would be helpful.

“We don’t really have a good enough technology that takes gases and turns them into oxygen — other than trees.”

He says dense foliage, based mainly at the portals of the tunnels, will naturally filter out particulate matter and trap carbon, while industrial jet fans will distribute pollutants away from residential areas.

GreenLink is designed to unite communities not
divide them with a wall of trucks, says Schwartz.

The GreenLink design is currently being reviewed by DRIC, which is expected to issue its verdict in the coming weeks. The binational team hasn’t publicly commented on the city’s favored plan, although one policy adviser was quoted by the Windsor Star as saying GreenLink is “complimentary” to the DRIC study.

Even though their two designs differ, Schwartz is confident the news will be encouraging. “I think we followed (DRIC’s) main principals and showed this can be built for what we predicted. I can’t speak for DRIC, but everything I’ve heard back is in support of the (work) we’ve done and I am very encouraged by what’s happening.”

The Ontario government, though, may be a tougher sell. Cabinet ministers would have to give the plan final approval before construction could begin. And it’s rumored that the provincial officials, including a couple of Windsor’s own MPPs, would prefer DRIC’s cheaper solution.

Not only is GreenLink more expensive to build, but some critics also wonder where the cash-strapped city will find the budget to maintain all the green space in the years to come.

Schwartz suggests that those concerns are overstated. He says a small percentage of the parkland could easily be turned into “revenue generating activities,” such as cafes and a small theatre, as well as vending activities like bicycle rental and boating.

Besides, if Ontario doesn’t want GreenLink, there are other regions in the world that do. Schwartz says that as soon as GreenLink went public, his consulting company fielded calls from people in Europe “who believe this is the new way to build highways in urban areas.”

“If (Windsor) gets this thing built,” promises Schwartz, “in 10 years it will be the hottest city in North America.”

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