Detroit River tunnel operator avoids bridge battle

As the state of Michigan and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun continue to wage battle over who should build and pay for a new bridge across the Detroit River, Neal Belitsky touts the benefits of motoring underwater.
AP Wire
Jul 1, 2012

 

The chief executive of the Detroit Windsor Tunnel — one of three current Detroit area commuter crossings into Canada — appears content to allow others to bicker while he focuses on improving the mile-long, 82-year-old subaqueous steel and concrete tube.

"Last year, four and half million cars used the tunnel. This year, we're a little ahead of that," Belitsky said. "The border is busy. People cross every day for work or cross to enjoy other cities."

Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian leaders reached an agreement earlier this month on a government bridge that would help ease congestion by bypassing the downtowns of Detroit and Windsor. Michigan Transportation officials, citing anticipated increases in border traffic, have argued that a second span will boost the state's international trade.

Moroun, who wants to build his own new bridge, has spent more than $1 million on advertising to sway Michigan residents against the government project.

"We really don't have a dog in that fight," Belitsky said. "If they don't build a bridge, if they build a bridge, we are concerned about our business."

The tunnel is jointly owned by the cities of Windsor and Detroit and privately operated. Millions of dollars in improvements have been made in recent years.

A new bridge could take some revenue from the tunnel, Ambassador Bridge and the state-run Blue Water Bridge north of Detroit in Port Huron, but the focus of a second span in Detroit is more about the movement of freight and "taking advantage of global imports and exports" than passenger car traffic, according to Robert Puentes, senior fellow with the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution.

"Any driver will make rational decisions on how they are going to travel based on all types of things," Puentes said. "Convenience might be one thing if you are pressed for time, and the cost might come in."

Still, there should be enough traffic and border crossing revenue to go around if arguments for a new bridge hold true, he added.

Last year, more than 5.1 million vehicles crossed that bridge. That's up from 4.7 million in 2010. More than 20,000 vehicles, including 6,000 trucks, use the bridge on busy days.

In 2010, 4.5 million cars and 2.7 million trucks crossed the Ambassador Bridge, according to a Center for Automotive Research analysis.

Car traffic is expected to increase by 57 percent by 2035. Truck traffic may rise 128 percent.

"This is something that is going to spur economic growth and there will be traffic that has to be accommodated," Puentes said of a second bridge. "In some ways traffic congestion is almost an indicator of economic health, particularly if we're talking about freight and truck movement."

The Detroit River is one of North America's busiest trade crossings, but numbers remain down since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Belitsky said.

Border security has become tighter, but high gas prices and slumbering economies on both sides of the river also are to blame for the lighter country to country travel, Belitsky said.

"A lot of folks used to go to Toronto," he said. "The city had significant value and had outstanding theater. Now, the dollar is basically at par. You have significantly more casino gaming in the U.S. now than you did before. A lot of people find it cheaper and easier to go to Chicago and Las Vegas as opposed to going to Toronto."

Snyder has said the government bridge will enhance the $70 billion-a-year trade relationship between Michigan and Canada. The cost to build Michigan's half would be repaid through tolls.

Ambassador Bridge operators don't anticipate the same growth in traffic and say the debt eventually would fall on taxpayers. Last week, a group behind an effort to have Michigan voters sign off on any future border crossings said it collected more than 420,000 signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

"The Ambassador Bridge, above anyone else, should be the one optimistic about that kind of growth," said Mickey Blashfield, spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge. "But that is just not the reality. We've operated the border. We've seen the decline. We pray that traffic will come, but this is not the 'if you build it, they will come' scenario."

 

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