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TOM WALSH: Tunnel plan needs fast track

Truck-rail action not expected until 2013

April 6, 2004



I thought twice about whether to tour the gloomy 94-year-old train tunnel that runs beneath the river between Detroit and Windsor.

Too spooky? Nah, the concrete tunnel is as murky as the catacombs where ancient Romans are buried, but that wasn't the problem.

Dangerous? Nah. The vehicle for our descent, a Chevy Suburban fitted with rail-car wheels, was weird and bumpy but not a worry. The problem, I kept telling myself, was this: I could be retired before the story I'm reporting ever goes anywhere.

Indeed, the latest word from the joint U.S.-Canadian task force on border-crossing capacity in Detroit for trucks, trains and cars is that a decision may take until 2013.

Eesh, that's the year I turn 63, I thought. But then again, the way Social Security is going, I may be working 'til I'm 83 or 93, so I jumped aboard for the tour Monday with the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership.

The DRTP is pushing a $450-million proposal to convert two old side-by-side rail tunnels under the Detroit River to handle truck traffic. A new, larger rail tunnel would be bored about 100 feet away from the existing side-by-side tunnels.

Benefits would be twofold:

  • New capacity for handling truck traffic could ease bottlenecks at the Ambassador Bridge.

  • A new, bigger rail tunnel would be large enough to handle the new generation of high-rack auto carriers, which are too large to fit through the old tunnels. "This rail crossing is grinding to a halt" because the portal sizes are too small, says Marge Byington, head of communications and government affairs for DRTP, a partnership of Canadian Pacific Railway and Borealis Transportation Infrastructure Trust, a subsidiary of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

Supporters of the DRTP proposal include Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.

As traffic across the Detroit-Windsor border grew during the go-go 1990s, so too did support for the notion that our region needs to expand crossing capacity, especially for trucks.

But then the economy slumped in 2000, followed by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ambassador Bridge traffic today is still below 1999 peak levels, and the sense of urgency about adding crossing capacity has waned. Officials with the Ambassador Bridge, controlled by businessman Manuel (Matty) Moroun, have suggested that inadequate border staffing by U.S. Customs -- not bridge capacity -- is mostly to blame for whatever backups exist.

The Moroun family has proposed another idea for expanding capacity -- a second span of the Ambassador Bridge.

Byington insists that some Customs inspectors sit for long periods waiting to check trucks at the Ambassador Bridge, because traffic is funneled through a one-lane road on the Windsor side.

Whatever the reason for occasional delays today, experts agree that truck traffic across the Detroit-Windsor should double by 2030 or so.

This isn't simply a one-way cause-and-effect situation, in which economic growth causes more traffic and thus prompts expansion of bridge or tunnel capacity. Conversely, a lack of action to improve our border crossing could slow or stifle economic growth in metro Detroit.

We should do whatever we can, as fast as we can, to ensure the smooth, rapid transit of goods across the U.S.-Canadian border.

Backers of the DRTP tunnel proposal claim they can pay for their project with private funds and a federal loan -- no state or local tax dollars. If so, let's speed up actions to evaluate their plan and hold them to their promise of private financing. Detroit's mayor and City Council should act on a DRTP offer to option land near the train portals on our side of the river, and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments should quickly consider DRTP's request for inclusion in the region's master transportation plan.

No reason the Ambassador Bridge expansion can't get full consideration, too, if the owners proceed with a timely proposal to expand. Best case, we're looking at three to five years before more crossing capacity comes online.

We should let these private companies compete, and may the one with the most promising plan succeed. There's no need to wait for some binational task force to cough up recommendations 10 or 15 years from now.

Think of the abandoned Michigan Central train depot that towers above the two side-by-side rail tunnels as a grim reminder of what happens when we keep putting off solutions to our problems.

Those rail tunnels, though still in use, are almost obsolete already. They'll become just another set of ruins for future vandals and graffiti cowboys to trash, unless Detroit's border crossing stays on the front burner as an issue demanding urgent attention.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected].

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Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Train tunnel expansion is mired in Detroit, Windsor politics

By Pete Waldmeir / The Detroit News

The proposed $450 million deal to enlarge the century-old twin railroad tunnels under the river connecting Detroit and Windsor, and the planned construction of a new railway tunnel alongside of them, makes sense.

Ironically, that could be why the investors are facing opposition from politicians on both sides of the border.

On the Detroit side, the City Council three times has approved selling a needed parcel to the U.S.-based Detroit River Tunnel Partnership, only to see the deals turned down by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

On the Canadian side, the Windsor council has made it emphatically clear that it doesn

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Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Detroit-Windsor bridge study held up again

Cited economic risks fail to speed up schedule for 3rd span

By Joel Kurth / The Detroit News

A slow-moving study of a third crossing between Detroit and Windsor has been delayed once again, despite fears of massive job losses and political pressure.

Revised estimates have pushed back the opening of a bridge or tunnel across the Detroit River until at least 2013. That

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