For those that want a relatively straight forward feature news story about the border, take a look at the Toronto Star article published below. There are several obvious errors:
1) The Bridge Co has a monopoly (the Bi-national killed that one years ago)
2) Chronic delays at the Bridge (not since it opened more booths)
3) There's another big one, made over a dozen times (let's see who can spot it)
4) The Bridge is close to capacity (only about 50-60%)
However, it does point out the most important fact that our Mayor and Council seem to have forgotten or are afraid to deal with: "if you want to build a new crossing over or under the Detroit River, you're going to end up having to deal with Maroun."
It is interesting that the other proponents have pretty much conceded the battle to the Bridge Co. as well:
[Marge Byington of DRTP] has, over the years, come to know this spot well, a place to gaze directly at a seemingly grand business opportunity. "I used to come up here and sit," she says.
"Support for the DRTP soon started evaporating"
So has [Ross] Clarke [of Mich-Can] wasted 14 years pursuing the project? "It could end up that way, yeah, could be."
The [Cansult] report did not warm to the [Schwartz] horseshoe road and its marshalling yard, a combination Cansult deemed not to be "practical or cost-effective." Indeed, Cansult reckoned the cost of tunnelling under the nature preserves with boring machines might itself prove "exorbitantly expensive." This was not happy news for Francis, who's spent much of this year trying to get Ottawa to agree to a full federal-provincial environmental assessment of the Schwartz plan, to no avail
"He's got it so close to checkmate," says [Greg] Ward [of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry]. "He's that close, man."
All roads would now lead to Maroun, who got an added boost in last week's election when Detroit's Maroun-friendly mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, beat out rival Freman Hendrix, whose affections lie with the Jobs Tunnel.
Enjoy the read!
Nov. 13, 2005. 07:05 AM
FEATURE WRITER (Toronto Star)
Marge Byington, her blonde-grey hair tied back in a ponytail, is standing on a railway overpass, the rain drizzling onto her black sweater and slacks. She has, over the years, come to know this spot well, a place to gaze directly at a seemingly grand business opportunity. "I used to come up here and sit," she says.
Several hundred metres away to the south, the rail line dips down into a two-lane tunnel, above which, cast in concrete, is the legend: "Detroit River Tunnel 1909." From there, it continues southward, under the water, until it emerges on the Canadian side in Windsor.
The tunnel's two lanes were round when built, but they've since been altered to accommodate slightly taller, more modern trains. This was not an artful renovation: The concrete above the tubes was simply cut and chipped away, so each opening now looks like a small rectangle perched on a circle.
More substantial changes could one day ensue. Or not.
Byington's group — a joint venture between CP Rail and the Ontario Municipal Employees Pension System — hopes to transform the old tunnel into a highway for trans-border trucks. They call it the "Jobs Tunnel," a way of advertising its claimed economic boost.
Sometime this month, a bureaucratic Canada-U.S. panel — dubbed The Border Transportation Partnership, then needlessly renamed the Detroit River International Crossing study, or DRIC, but known locally as simply "The Bi-National" — will unveil a short list of four proposals to add another border crossing for trucks. A prizewinner won't be crowned until 2007. Construction would be completed by 2013. At least that's the plan.
As it happens, most of these ideas for new crossings have keen kicking around in one form or another for at least a decade, ever since the economic burst of free trade started clogging up Windsor streets with trucks waiting to cross into Detroit.
But there have been, well, complications along the way. The other short list reads like this: complicated political intrigues, proposals and counter-proposals, NIMBY neighbourhood fighting, and enough players to fill a season at Stratford — all with a jurisdictional overlay of local, provincial, state and federal authorities, a group not known for easy unanimity.
At one point, a veteran of the crossing battles counted more than 60 agencies that might come into play.
All this might aspire to farce were the economic consequences not so potentially dire. Fully one quarter of all merchandise trade between Canada and the United States now passes through the Windsor-Detroit corridor. The cost of delays and disruptions along that path soon adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Hence Byington's occasional desire to sit on the overpass to plot strategy, not least about one complication in particular.
Underneath her is Interstate 75, and the view to the west eventually gives way to the 76-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which is where trouble both begins and may, ultimately, end.
As it now stands, the bridge is the only major truck crossing in this part of the world, a dizzy monopoly through which roughly 12,000 trucks now pass daily, paying (together with cars) an estimated $60 million (U.S.) in annual tolls.
Now add another distinction: Of the more than 130 border crossings between Canada and the U.S., it's the only one owned by a private individual, a 78-year-old trucking magnate named Manuel "Matty" Maroun. (The only other non-government crossing, at Fort Frances, Ont., is owned by two publicly traded forest companies.)
"We're dealing with a monopoly here, a private monopoly, and the bridge company does an extremely good job of protecting that monopoly," says Byington, one-time aide to former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer.
When the Jobs Tunnel purchased a strip of land next to the rail line here, the group ended up in a protracted (though recently successful) court fight with Maroun, who happens to own the adjacent and windowless Michigan Central Depot, a once grand 12-storey train station built in 1913, through which generations of soldiers departed for war, including Byington's Vietnam veteran husband.
Maroun has an affection for such piles. He also owns a handful of other derelict buildings nearby, as well as vast swaths of riverfront and what used to be Detroit's industrial core. "They have no windows," says Byington. "You can always tell."
But all that land also means that, if you want to build a new crossing over or under the Detroit River, you're going to end up having to deal with Maroun.
Windsor itself may be flat as the prairies, but its man-made geography has a certain surreal quality, not least a weird penchant for highways that lead nowhere and then end abruptly.
A half-century ago, local opposition stopped Highway 401 on the outskirts of Windsor, 12 kilometres away from the Ambassador Bridge. Nor does the 401 come anywhere near the E.C. Row Expressway that cuts east-west across the city and which also sputters onto urban streets at either end.
Once the 401 comes to a halt, any trucker heading to Detroit must follow two city streets — Talbot Rd. and then Huron Church Rd. — through 17 traffic lights to get to the bridge, where there is a single lane for trucks in each direction. This is not a design they teach in university.
For decades, though, it was scarcely a problem. The Ambassador Bridge, which opened 76 years ago next week, was never built with a lot of truck traffic in mind, and by 1961 only 800 trucks were crossing it daily.
Apart from the griping about tolls, the bridge was rarely in the spotlight — one of those times being when Matty Maroun happened along to buy it in 1979.
Ever since the Depression, when the bridge's original owner sold shares to stave off bankruptcy, the Ambassador Bridge had been owned by a publicly traded company. By the late 1970s, one of the biggest investors was the legendary Warren Buffett, with 25 per cent of the stock. But Maroun, a Detroit native backed by his family's trucking business, matched that stake, bought out Buffett and then the remaining shareholders for $30 million (U.S.).
If you wanted to script a billionaire who still throws Gordie Howe elbows like the scrappy entrepreneur he once was, Maroun wouldn't be a bad model. His Arab grandfather was peripatetic enough to move the family from Argentina to Quebec to Windsor, where the family home was razed to make way for, yes, the Ambassador Bridge.
Maroun's father ended up in the trucking business in 1950 after he took over Central Cartage, a struggling company that owed him back rent. Matty did the books and any other odd job that needed doing, from changing oil to fixing tires. As the only son, Matty naturally ended up overseeing the business — though he later had to fight to keep it, when two of his sisters sued him over the way he was running the company. They finally settled in 1999, when Matty bought them out.
He has always had, it seems, a troll-like possessiveness about the bridge, insisting (often in court) on its private status. He won't release maintenance records and refuses to let law enforcement officials onto the bridge to nab trucks that could be carrying explosives, toxic waste or other materials banned by law from crossing the bridge.
About his personal life, he's equally protective. Maroun doesn't grant media interviews, rarely appears in public, and his officials did not return phone messages. His relative obscurity, in fact, might have survived intact were it not for two events: the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.
By the early 1990s, truck traffic had already swelled to 8,000 trucks daily, en route to an eventual peak of 14,000, testing the bridge's capacity and backing trucks up along Huron Church Rd. in Windsor.
Then came 9/11. Amid the security crackdown that followed, the backup stretched for kilometres, hinting at the havoc any terrorist attack on the bridge would wreak. On some days it took 12 hours for a truck to get from Windsor to U.S. Customs on the other side, prompting the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to place portable toilets all along Huron Church.
None of which surprised Ross Clarke, a local surveyor and former head of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce, who'd been warning about the economic cost of such traffic jams since 1991, when he and a group of local businessman first proposed building a second crossing to relieve the pressure.
The need was already clear back then. "If something wasn't done, there was going to be a diversion of economic activity. Companies weren't going to come to Windsor or Detroit."
Clarke's group called themselves Mich-Can. They picked a site in Windsor's industrial west end, brought in the engineers, and lined up Bear Stearns to do the financing. Windsor city council seemed to be receptive.
There was just one problem: Although Clarke's proposal was simply to build a new bridge, the project assumed that the 401 would eventually be connected to E.C. Row, which just happens to run in a direct line toward their new crossing. As traffic grew, they figured, E.C. Row could easily be expanded to eight lanes from four. There'd be no trucks on city streets. "From an engineering point of view, the E.C. Row expressway makes sense to anybody from out of town because it's a controlled-access route," says Clarke.
But if there's one taboo in Windsor — and a curiously masochistic one, given the city's reliance on the auto industry — it's putting more vehicles on E.C. Row. The highway to nowhere affects the ward of every local councillor, so worries about noise and pollution rarely fall on deaf ears. As soon as everyone figured out what the new bridge would entail, Mich-Can's idea was shunted to the wings, where it's lingered ever since.
Sure, the Mich-Can site is still on the short list being studied by the Bi-National commission on a new border crossing, but even if that site emerges victorious, there's no guarantee Clarke's group would win the right to build the bridge there.
So has Clarke wasted 14 years pursuing the project? "It could end up that way, yeah, could be."
Lou Tortola hauls out an aerial photograph of his part of Windsor. "This is my house right here," he says. "From my backyard, I could throw a snowball and hit a truck."
Not just any truck, mind you, but what could be thousands of them heading along what is now a railway line if Byington's Job's Tunnel, a.k.a. the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership, ever gets its way. "If this DRTP goes through, our neighbourhood goes to ratshit."
It didn't help that the DRTP was a well-oiled publicity machine, with former Windsor mayor Mike Hurst emerging as its head. "I don't want this forced into our community by people who have more money than God," says Tortola.
He's especially galled at one publicity stunt — the time a CP train, with Santa Claus on board, slowly made its way through town and over to Detroit, collecting contributions for a local food bank.
The DRTP's Byington might recall that event as a touching affair, but not so Tortola. "It was the worst American bullshit campaign you've ever seen in your life," he says. "I just went nuts. I can't believe they had the balls to do that."
Not that Tortola is unfamiliar with campaigning. He worked as (now) Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan's campaign manager in the 1995 provincial election and runs a local marketing firm, designing websites and the like. Which is to say, a well-oiled anti-DRTP campaign was inevitable, much of it orchestrated by Tortola.
There were lawn signs — "like a federal campaign, really" — and town-hall meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The group boasted 1,200 members at its height, and raised roughly $21,000.
Support for the DRTP soon started evaporating, but Tortola's group spawned such a taste for change that it eventually ushered in a slew of new city councillors, along with a new mayor.
That would be Eddie Francis, now 31, late of the family pita business started by his Lebanese immigrant father. Francis the younger has staked much of his short public career on solving the border problem — a brave and worthy thing to do, but also the kind of stand that, for politicians, is often eventually accompanied by grief.
For starters, Francis still can't understand why the rest of the country hasn't really cottoned on to the border problem in Windsor, which is where 40 per cent of all the trucks entering Canada from the United States make their crossing.
"I don't think others have an appreciation of what impact it has on them," says Francis, wielding one of those laser pointers so he can highlight parts of the slide show he's got going in his office boardroom. "Toronto has more at stake on the Windsor crossing than it does on the Peace Bridge." The Francis laser alights on how nearly half the bridge's truck traffic is long distance — shuttling between factories and showrooms throughout southern Ontario and their U.S. counterparts well beyond Detroit.
Still, Francis figured Windsor would have to resolve its own internal conflicts first, so he turned to former New York City traffic maven Sam Schwartz, the guy credited with coining the word "gridlock."
Francis figured if anyone could come up with a plan, it was Gridlock Sam, hired by city council in early 2004.
The night the Schwartz plan was made public last spring, at a town hall meeting in Windsor, a crisply suited Francis took to the stage to do the introductions. He also had a caution, and like many young politicians seeking a gravitas beyond their years, he quoted wartime Churchill: "This is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Schwartz, he noted, was an independent voice, though that hadn't stopped Windsor council from giving him "principles" to abide by, such as getting trucks off city streets, protecting neighbourhoods, and not unduly disrupting the local automakers.
The result was what you'd expect: a consultant's report highly cognizant of local politics. No, Schwartz wasn't proposing to clog E.C. Row with trucks. There are already too many off ramps, he said, often only 700 metres apart, much less than the provincial standard of two kilometres.
Nor was he fond of the Jobs Tunnel. He called it a cattle chute, with so little side-clearance for trucks there were bound to be accidents — and idling trucks backed up into the heart of Windsor.
Schwartz had a plan of his own. Trucks would continue to flow off the 401 onto Talbot Rd./Huron Church, but they'd be intercepted partway and diverted onto a giant horseshoe road that would swing toward the Detroit River where it bends southwest. In other words, right where Clarke's Mich-Can group long ago proposed putting a new bridge.
But until the new crossing gets resolved, the trucks would enter a marshalling yard, where they'd be "metered" — released at set intervals — to continue along the horseshoe and back onto, well, Huron Church.
Having travelled eight kilometres along the horseshoe — to avoid a two-kilometre stretch of Huron Church — trucks would then still have to pass the remaining 10 traffic lights approaching the Ambassador Bridge. But Schwartz insisted metering would still make for orderly traffic, since no trucks would be released if there were any tie-ups at the bridge itself.
There were other parts of his plan, too, like adding a major rail terminus to the airport area, but the key was the horseshoe, with an estimated price tag of $300 million. "You should not be afraid to think big and demand big," Schwartz told the assembled that night.
Toward the end of his presentation, he spoke of "generational ethics," creating something of value for the future. He said Windsor deserved a "signature bridge." A portrait of London's Tower Bridge came up on the screen.
There followed an artist's rendition of Huron Church, with trees and cyclists. "They will call the Champs-Elysées the Huron Church Rd. of Paris. That's how great it's going to be."
There was, oddly, no one rolling in the aisles.
There's a simple reason that Schwartz's horseshoe road was so warmly received when first unveiled to a Windsor audience: The homeowners who might be most hostile don't live in Windsor. They live in the adjacent town of LaSalle, near a group of noted nature preserves, including Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve and Tall-grass Heritage Park (owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada).
As it happens — and this shouldn't surprise, given Windsor's history of road design — Schwartz's horseshoe road would run through and under the Ojibway Reserve as well as Spring Garden, a provincially designated "Area of Natural and Scientific Interest."
"It was pretty clear to us right away that it was a pretty expedient political decision: Let's put it through the forest," says Alan McKinnon, walking through the wild parkland behind his house.
McKinnon, production director at a local rock station, has since been spearheading a "Save Ojibway" campaign, with brochures, letters to politicians, T-shirts, and support from a raft of environmental groups.
He concedes some of the most endangered inhabitants of Ojibway — grey foxes and Massasauga rattlesnakes — are not the cuddliest critters around which to build a campaign. But in the end, he may not need them.
Not long after the Schwartz report, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Anne McLellan, the deputy prime minister, arrived in town to unveil a major road expansion, much of it through farmland near the airport in east-end Windsor. That roadwork would wind up connecting the 401 with E.C. Row.
Francis was incensed. Anything that might put trans-border trucks on E.C. Row is, to him, "a non-starter." So he and the rest of Windsor council snubbed the ceremony. "Had we attended," he says, "we would have condoned it.
"Yes, we've got explosive growth. Yes, things are going well for trade and commerce. But it shouldn't be on the backs and shoulders of Windsor residents. Why are they not entitled to the same quality of life as anyone else in the province?"
Amid all the border woes, the City of Windsor's absence at the ceremony passes strange to Tom Burton, deputy mayor of Tecumseh, an adjacent town east of Windsor, which supports expanding E.C. Row. "It just boggles my mind that they would think they don't need the province and the feds to solve this problem."
Then last month, Transport Canada released a critique of the Schwartz report it had commissioned from Markham's Cansult Ltd. The report did not warm to the horseshoe road and its marshalling yard, a combination Cansult deemed not to be "practical or cost-effective." Indeed, Cansult reckoned the cost of tunnelling under the nature preserves with boring machines might itself prove "exorbitantly expensive."
This was not happy news for Francis, who's spent much of this year trying to get Ottawa to agree to a full federal-provincial environmental assessment of the Schwartz plan, to no avail.
Gregg Ward, a big friendly guy with a killer handshake, is wheeling his silver F-150 along the Windsor side of the Detroit River, playing a familiar game of local trivia. What does Matty Maroun own now?
"Right where you see that blue building over there," he says, pointing across the river. "He just bought that terminal."
There is, for Ward, a philosophical point about Maroun's monopoly. "Should critical infrastructure be privately owned?"
And he's well aware of the irony. Ward's family operates its own species of private crossing, the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, essentially a barge for carrying oversized trucks and those containing hazardous material — or "haz-mat" in industry jargon. It's a tiny business, grossing under $2 million a year. "There's only a certain amount of haz-mat that crosses in a day," he says.
Even if, as Schwartz recommends, his ferry service were expanded to two barges operating 24 hours a day, that would still add up to only 1,000 trucks per diem.
"This is his property, too," says Ward, of a vacant lot on the Canadian side, near where Clarke's Mich-Can group proposed building its second bridge. "Ross Clarke has a great idea, but he doesn't own property."
Ward, like many in Windsor, holds Maroun in a kind of twisted awe — marvelling at how he plays the game, gobbling up all that real estate. "He's got it so close to checkmate," says Ward. "He's that close, man."
As it happens, Maroun's next move comes the following day: The Ambassador Bridge has a new plan, a big finger directed at the whole Bi-National quest for a second crossing. Instead of adding another bridge right next to the Ambassador, as he'd long threatened to do, Maroun now proposes building a giant customs plaza on 80 hectares of Detroit industrial land, most of which he already owns.
There would be 100 customs booths, double the current number on both sides of the border, with the possibility of more to come. According to Maroun's calculations, the new plaza would cut crossing times so dramatically that another bridge might not be needed for, well, another 25 years.
And, in a final flourish, Maroun proposed paying the cash-strapped City of Detroit in a deal to take over management of the U.S. side of the Detroit-Windsor car tunnel, and then funnelling its traffic along a secure corridor to the new customs plaza.
All roads would now lead to Maroun, who got an added boost in last week's election when Detroit's Maroun-friendly mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, beat out rival Freman Hendrix, whose affections lie with the Jobs Tunnel.
None of which is a surprise to Ed Arditti, a retired Windsor lawyer and now a tireless blogger on border developments. "Maroun's got a business and he's going to protect it," he says, leaning over his kitchen table.
In a way that combines laughter and scorn, Arditti's blog has lately been peppered with words like "hilarious." He reckons Windsor could have worked out some sort of favourable deal with Maroun years ago, but has since squandered whatever bargaining power it once had.
Ironically, he says, all the successful campaigns against various proposals — and Arditti was a big foe of the Jobs Tunnel — may have left the city feeling more empowered than it had any right to be. "We effectively gave our city the balls to say `no' to everyone."
Which has also meant shunning the likes of Matty Maroun.
Arditti shakes his head. "Like it or not, you're going to have to deal with Maroun, and no one seems to want to talk to him," he says. "It's like the Fram commercial: You can see me now or see me later."