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Windsor-Detroit Border Blockage 2
29/05/2003

Back in March, I reported on the problems faced by trade at the border crossing in Windsor. Now, a deal has been announced by the federal and Ontario governments to spend $300 million on certain specific initiatives. As I will explain below, the new plan does not address many of the real issues. What it does do is bring some controversial new road developments to Windsor, which are supported by the mayor, but opposed by most city councillors. These developments also allow the federal and provincial governments to look like they are taking action on an important US-Canada trade issue.

To understand where these new developments fall short, one must understand the difference between the reputed problem and the actual problem.

The reputed problem addressed by these proposals is that getting through the City of Windsor represents a serious bottleneck for international trade. Ever-increasing truck volume has been forced to navigate a city street (Huron Church Road) past 16 stop lights from the 401 to The Ambassador Bridge. Additional trucks are clogging other local streets. We can see that this is causing a delay in international trade, a government minister might say, because we can see the lineups of trucks along these roads.

The actual problem is somewhat different. Movement of these trucks is very important to industry, and both speed and predictability are important.

First, consider speed. When there are no lineups, the time to travel Huron Church Road is not a significant issue at all. The lineups, however, are not caused by the lack of capacity on Huron Church. The road is wide enough to handle all the trucks coming off the 401. Nor are the lineups caused by a lack of capacity on the bridge itself. Lineups are caused by US Customs being understaffed relative to the volume of trucks and their processing time. The evidence of this is that there are rarely lineups in the opposite direction (entering Canada) despite the fact that the inbound volume of trucks is roughly the same and the bridge is no wider in that direction.

Second: predictability. For manufacturing plants working on a just-in-time system, it is more important that you can rely on your deliveries to take a consistent amount of time than it is for those deliveries to be very fast. Slow deliveries, if consistent, can be managed. Late deliveries can shut down a plant and cost you many millions. The unpredictability of the border crossing seems to be dictated by two factors. One is the varying attitudes and staffing levels of US Customs. The other is the mere fact that there is only one truck crossing, which means that a single event (like an accident) can cut off trade for hours. From the Globe:

[D]elays of more than seven hours were caused [last week] by a combination of the U.S. orange security alert, increased inspections because of mad-cow disease and an accident between two tractor trailers on the bridge.
When major delays occur, with lineups of trucks stretching for miles, it really affects the whole city. Given the dog-eat-dog nature of the trucking industry, drivers will try any shortcut to jump the queue. So, the trucks aren't only lined up along Huron Church Road to the 401, but along any other major street that leads towards "the world's busiest border crossing".

The solution that has been agreed to by the various levels of government directly addresses the reputed problem. However, it only indirectly addresses the actual problem.

The solution involves:

  • Eliminating key intersections along Huron Church Road, by building over- and under-passes
  • Widening a city expressway (EC Row, which runs parallel to the 401, closer to the border) by adding a lane in each direction. The province will assume ongoing responsibility for this road
  • Upgrading another city highway to connect the east end of the EC Row Expressway to the 401, thus creating an alternate truck route, paralleling the 401, through the length of the city
  • Construction of a pre-processing or staging area outside of the city

On the surface, all that these $300-million-worth of improvements will buy are faster, uninterrupted routes between the 401 and the lineup going onto the bridge. Predictability of truck deliveries is not improved, and speed is only helped on those days when there is no queue. The City of Windsor realizes a bit of a benefit, too, in that infrastructure will be put in place for local industrial development.

A plan that would solve the Windor-Detroit border blockage would need to address speed and predictability:

Speed needs to be addressed by managing inspections and paperwork. This can be done most easily through a simple increase in the number of working agents in Detroit. However, in the long-run, if the right agreements are worked out between governments, the processing centre can help expedite this process.

Predictability can best be helped by a second crossing. Despite the fact that there were three alternative crossings vying for the $300 million commitment, none of them received any money. The only solace is that the expanded EC Row Expressway will serve to connect the 401 with some of these alternative crossings, including the one I think best -- the Canadian-Pacific-backed TradeWay tunnel. In fact, the proposed road construction may allow trucks to by-pass the neighbourhood that has tried to block the TradeWay, and allow the initiative to move forward with private financing.

Overall, the project appears to fall short of its objectives, but it may have succeeded in finding the best possible arrangement while minimizing local political conflicts and avoiding choosing a winner in the cash-cow business of a second crossing.


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