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Windsor-Detroit Border Blockage
08/03/2003

I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, just a few blocks from The Ambassador Bridge, which is the busiest piece of infrastructure in Canada's busiest border crossing. 30% of Canada's road exports travels through the two crossings in Windsor, but the bridge has the lion's share of that trade.

For years, the bridge has represented somewhat of a bottle-neck. When I was going to high school, there were frequently trucks backed up from US Customs, across the bridge and past the front of my school -- more than 4 kilometres. I think special windows and ventilation had to be installed to prevent us from choking to death on the fumes.

This past September, the federal and provincial governments announced a plan to spend $300 million to upgrade border crossing infrastructure in the area. Since then, a variety of plans have been battling it out for that money, and there has been much public controversy in the city. Not only is City Council fighting with the Mayor, but different local community associations are fighting to stop whichever plan goes through their area, and hoping to shift momentum to other plans that go through other areas. Political maneuvering is inevitable, as the Ambassador Bridge's vice-president is a former Liberal MPP, while a competing proposal represents the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Board.

Today's Globe and Mail reports on the issue in detail. It describes the extreme importance of this issue to the automotive industry in Canada. Canadian and American plants depend on the border crossing for just-in-time deliveries. The implication is clear that further development of industry in Ontario is counting on an efficient crossing. However, the article gives short shrift to the root cause of the problem.

When you see the trucks lined up in single-file, across the bridge and into Windsor, it becomes clear. The border is not jammed because the bridge isn't wide enough to handle enough trucks, and we therefore need a second crossing. Trucks are not delayed because there is a 3-lane city street connecting the 401 with the bridge that includes -- heaven forbid -- 16 stoplights (that the trucks sometimes obey). The fact is, trade is being impeded because US Customs is not willing to provide enough staff and sufficient facilities to do their job efficiently.

I don't know if the United States is required by NAFTA to provide the budget to have an efficient border, but they certainly aren't doing so. I'm a bit suspicious of their behaviour here. Nevertheless, if any money is to be spent to improve the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, it does not need to be spent on building highways to connect to the bridge. It needs to be spent on actually having enough customs officials to inspect the trucks in a timely fashion. And I don't think that would cost $300 million, either.

What's actually happening in this battle between competing infrastructure plans, is that the various organizations are fighting for market share in the distant future. If the Ambassador Bridge gets to build its highway, that will ensure their ability to twin the bridge in 2015 (or whenever) and squeeze out any opportunity for future competitors.


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