Singing The Blue Water Bridge Blues
No wonder so many politicians and bureaucrats dislike the Ambassador Bridge Company. They know how to run a border crossing and they know how to do it properly. When you are spending your money and not taxpayer money, you have to do it right!
Here's what I mean. Our Mayor and his traffic guru thought nothing about spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a Horseshoe Road that would not have moved a single truck over the border more quickly. It is virtually the same concept, only spending fewer dollars, at the Tunnel Plaza. They are creating giant parking lots. They have no concept of how a border should be operating. They just don't seem to understand that the objective is not to create parking spaces.
If you think we have problems here, then you need to take a look at what is going on in Sarnia/Port Huron. I don't claim to know very much about that crossing. I have enough trouble trying to figure what is going on in Windsor. All that I know is that they have twinned Bridges, an expressway that leads right to the border crossing without stoplights and are competitors to us since many truckers have a choice as to which border crossing to use since their destination point is a equi-distant from both bridges.
In spite of all that, and even though their tolls are lower, Windsor is the border crossing choice for many of the truckers. It is the economics that is the determinant. If a truck can go through the Windsor border more quickly than sitting in line at the Blue Water Bridge at $125 per hour, then a trucker will come to Windsor. It seems that the Ambassador Bridge people are smarter in how they invest their revenues to keep the border flowing smoothly.
I won't quote again the US study that says that the Ambassador Bridge is the best crossing between Canada and the United States. I don't want to make the gentleman from the PBA who spoke at Brian Masse's "public authorities" meeting angry again.
Take a look at the story below from the Port Huron TimesHerald. There are many lessons that we can learn from it that are applicable in Windsor. I'll let you know what those lessons are after you have read the story:
- Canadian ire pushes bridge plaza project
Problems plaguing current facility first noted before 2000
By MIKE CONNELL
The original call for expansion of the U.S. border plaza at the Blue Water Bridge didn't come from the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security or any other state or federal agency.
It came from Canada.
"In November 1999, when the Gateway was reopened after twinning (the bridges) and renovation of the first span, several flaws with the American Plaza became apparent," Ontario lawmaker Roger Gallaway recalled in a 2005 letter to an MDOT official. "These design matters caused a restriction of Canadian traffic westbound into the United States."
The design flaws contributed to miles-long traffic backups on Highway 402 in Sarnia. They also brought bitter complaints from Canadian officials, who complained the millions of dollars their nation had spent on the second span were in effect being wasted.
- The second span opened in mid-1997. Its construction cost was nearly $80 million, with Canada chipping in $38.1 million. The two nations spent tens of millions more on engineering, design, environmental testing, insurance, plaza improvements, community relations and other ancillary costs.
How the project began
Gallaway's letter is one of dozens included in an appendix to the draft environmental impact statement for a proposed $433 million expansion of the American plaza. A public hearing on the document, which runs to more than 500 pages, is scheduled Tuesday at McMorran Place. The correspondence paints a vivid picture of how the project came about. It also provides insight into five years of bureaucratic infighting and occasionally heated debate.
Among the revelations:
Gallaway and Canadian transportation officials accused their Michigan counterparts of long refusing to address - or even to acknowledge - problems with the newly built American inspection plaza.
Popular wisdom aside, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, apparently played little or no role in the original call for plaza expansion. Indeed, five years after the terror attacks, a top state official still questioned whether Homeland Security considered it a necessary project.
"Finally, I want to emphasize to you that MDOT has concerns about whether the Blue Water Bridge Plaza project is a high priority for (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)," MDOT director Kirk Steudle wrote last year in a letter to U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township.
"While CBP has indicated this project is in its five-year plan, the agency has not committed funds for this project and has informed MDOT it has no plans or money to increase staffing levels when the plaza expansion is complete," he continued. "As you know, a multi-million-dollar investment by the State of Michigan in a plaza not properly staffed will not solve the border-delay problem."
CBP embraces project
In the 15 months since Steudle wrote his letter, the friction between agencies appears to have been smoothed over.
At public meetings last week, MDOT officials said CBP has embraced the project and given assurances it will staff inspection booths. The new plaza will have from 20 to 30 inspection booths, compared to 13 on the existing plaza.
"CBP definitely is committed to this project," MDOT's Lloyd Baldwin said Friday in an interview at the agency's Port Huron field office. "CBP (employees) can't do what they're mandated to do because they only have 12 usable acres at the plaza."
The new plaza will encompass 65 acres, he noted, which still is less than the minimum 80 acres requested by the federal government.
Baldwin, a historian in MDOT's environmental section, said he wasn't sure if Canadian demands led to the plaza project.
"I think there was probably a mutual understanding that our engineering solution wasn't what it could have been," he said, referring to the elevated American plaza built in the mid-1990s at a cost of more than $52 million.
He said colleagues have told him the plaza built a decade ago was too small to accommodate the second span. Its size was constrained, he said, because officials didn't wish to evict London's Farm Dairy or move a major Detroit Edison substation.
When the dairy closed five years ago, MDOT bought and cleared the property. The DTE substation, which supplies power to much of the city, is to be moved as part of the plaza expansion.
"That's a fairly significant project," he said. "It's not a small thing."
Correspondence suggests it was the Canadians who first realized the American plaza was not working.
The second span opened in 1997, but it took another two years to restore and reopen the original span. Officials with the Blue Water Bridge Authority, which co-owns the bridge with MDOT, were dismayed when traffic backups only grew worse.
Dan Elash, the authority's former president and chief executive, complained design flaws at the plaza were placing "a burden on the Canadian economy."
"The present design of the port of entry in Port Huron was done by the Michigan Department of Transportation," Elash wrote last year in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration. "This design incorporated a 100% crossover weave at the international line, causing westbound gridlock on the bridge and rendering the gateway dysfunctional."
The basic problem: Trucks rolled onto the bridge in the right lane. By the time they reached the other side, they needed to be in the left lane to enter inspection booths.
"The Michigan Department of Transportation was slow to acknowledge this engineering flaw," Elash said, "and was even slower to acknowledge the concerns of Canada about MDOT's design."
Engler promises inquiry
Gallaway, who represented the Sarnia-Lambton riding in Canada's House of Commons from 1993 to 2006, traced the history of the project in a Nov. 17, 2005, letter to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
"The American Plaza's present design represents a restraint on trade that limits the throughput capacity on commercial goods and services moving into the United States from Canada on the twin spans," he wrote. "Until these design deficiencies are corrected, the full potential of the twinning of the Blue Water Bridge gateway cannot be realized."
In the late 1990s, Gallaway said he shared his concerns with Gov. John Engler, who "made a commitment to my office and to Canada to correct this issue."
Engler asked MDOT to investigate, and the agency promised to complete its study by 2004 and to have a solution in place by 2007.
Gallaway, as chairman of the Standing Committee on Transport, had an influential voice in Canadian transportation issues. In 2005, he traveled to Washington and received a briefing from CBP officials.
"What I have found is troubling," he told Granholm. "Today, I find myself having to revisit these issues and again having to start a dialogue with your good office to explore how we can find a solution that benefits both of our nations."
Delays dismay Miller
Across the border, similar frustrations were expressed by Port Huron's representative in Congress.
"I must say I am serious dismayed by what appears to be a lack of direction or leadership from MDOT this far," Miller wrote in a June 27, 2006, letter to Kris Wisniewski, MDOT's project manager and a former Port Huron councilman who never hid his affection for the city or his desire to protect what he saw as its best interests.
Miller noted the study originally was to have taken 24 to 36 months at a cost of $2.3 million. As of today, the study is expected to conclude in mid-2008 at a cost exceeding $15 million.
"While all this has been taking place on the American side of the bridge, the Canadians have developed a $100 million plan to expand their plaza," Miller lamented. "They have acquired additional property, began construction of new lanes and have nearly finished their new buildings. All this is being done while we have conducted study after study and then debated their conclusions."
Wisniewski left the project at the end of 2006. He has been replaced by two project managers, Paul McAllister and Matt Webb.
State blames feds
Three days after receiving Miller's letter, Steudle mailed his response and put the blame for the delays squarely on Homeland Security.
"When MDOT began this study in 2002, we sought the active involvement of the then-U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service," he wrote. "Our efforts to engage these agencies in an active dialogue concerning infrastructure and border staffing needs were largely met by indifference and an unwillingness to discuss the issue.
"For the past three years, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the successor to the U.S. Customs Service, has been unwilling to provide critical information to our planning and engineering teams to help them design a new plaza that meets long-term inspection needs. The information CBP has provided has often been vague and contradictory, further complicating our planning and engineering challenge. This lack of engagement has resulted in a two-year delay in the environmental approval process."
Steudle noted it took the intervention of Michigan's congressional delegation to convince CBP to commit a high-level staffer to the project.
"However, it remains difficult to get answers from CBP in a timely manner," he wrote.
He also told Miller: "In regard to your comment about the lack of direction or leadership from MDOT, we believe that just the opposite is true. MDOT has developed a clear plan, not only for the completion of the environmental study, but also for the design and construction of the project."
Senators want answers
The final letter included with the correspondence, dated less than two months ago, was signed by Michigan's two senators - Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.
The letter, sent to Robert Perez of CBP's regional office in Detroit, asks some remarkably basic questions given that it comes five years into the project. Among other things, the senators asked:
How many acres does CPB require at the plaza? How will the acreage be used? How was the square footage of various buildings determined? How will each building be used? What are the agency's short-term and long-term needs in Port Huron? What is the timetable for the project?
The senators also called on CBP and the General Services Administration to provide "a finalized written design plan" to Port Huron officials.
"Local officials have expressed concern that the land taken for this project will exceed the needs of the Department of Homeland Security, and neighboring areas will be impacted unnecessarily," they wrote. "As the plaza is located within a residential and business district in a populated city, the city would like to insure that the size and scale of the footprint of the plaza will be kept to the minimum needed to fulfill the nation's security and commerce interests."
Here are some things I learned:
- It's strange isn't it that Canada has spent so much in Sarnia but has spent virtually nothing in Windsor to fix the road to the border even though $300 million was set in 2002 to do so. Can you figure out why nothing was done and now the BIF program has expired. Do you think it has something to do with the Ambassador Bridge and putting them out of business?
- Again it's strange that the Canadians are complaining that Michigan has done nothing to fix up their border problems in the Sarnia area while in Windsor, it is the Americans complaining about our lack of building a road to the border.
- Do you really want bureaucrats planning border crossings? If they can make such a mess in Sarnia/Port Huron, what would they do in both Windsor and Detroit with the creation of new plazas. Can you imagine two major truck Customs plazas tying into I-75 within a very short distance of each other.
- They have twinned Bridges and the major expressway leading to the border in Sarnia that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and they still have a disaster. Imagine what they would do with billions of taxpayer dollars on both sides of the river.
- Interesting comment about the Americans refusing to acknowledge problems with their design. No wonder Transport Canada created their Corridors and Gateway position paper. The future of our economy depends on fully functional border crossings. Didn't I tell you that this was what the border issue was all about and not about the DRIC bridge!
- Kirk Steudle, director of MDOT has made a mockery of spending billions of dollars on a new crossing when he wrote the following: "As you know, a multi-million-dollar investment by the State of Michigan in a plaza not properly staffed will not solve the border-delay problem." In other words, when the Bridge Company opened up four booths, it probably did more for clearing up the truck backup than building a new bridge that would merely serve as a new parking lot for trucks over the river. As I wrote a few days ago "It's the Customs, stupid."
- Using the Windsor logic, to solve the truck backup problem, a third bridge or a new tunnel should be built in Sarnia. Instead, they have learned from the Ambassador Bridge Company: "The new plaza will have from 20 to 30 inspection booths, compared to 13 on the existing plaza."
- Perhaps Senator Kenny's "Dirty little secret" is at play here and that can explain the delays ""The American Plaza's present design represents a restraint on trade that limits the throughput capacity on commercial goods and services moving into the United States from Canada on the twin spans."
- The consultants I'm sure are thrilled on both projects: "Miller noted the study originally was to have taken 24 to 36 months at a cost of $2.3 million. As of today, the study is expected to conclude in mid-2008 at a cost exceeding $15 million."
- Plaza size seems to be an issue as well as it is on the Windsor side of the Ambassador Bridge "Local officials have expressed concern that the land taken for this project will exceed the needs of the Department of Homeland Security, and neighboring areas will be impacted unnecessarily."
- If Canada has spent all that money on the new plaza, just wait until someone on the US side wakes up and says "let's have all the customs cleared on the Canadian side." Does that sound familiar?
- I wonder if the Bridge Company people would be interested in operating the Blue Water Bridge. It would be interesting to see what private enterprise could do!