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Tunnels provide key U.S.-Canada link from Detroit

As bridge battles flare, 2 cities spend access for autos, railways

  • USA-Detriot-Windsor-Tunnel-2

    A bus emerges from the tunnel in Detroit in early December, 1930. Construction began in 1928. The tunnel, jointly owned by the cities of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, is only one lane each way and cannot be widened.

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  • USA-Detriot-Windsor-Tunnel

    A bus emerges from the tunnel in Detroit in early December, 1930. Construction began in 1928. The tunnel, jointly owned by the cities of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, is only one lane each way and cannot be widened.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • detroit-canada-tunnel

    Cars line up at customs checkpoints in Detroit after traveling through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel from Canada. Nearly 3.8 million vehicles used the the tunnel in 2011.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • CTY-TUNNEL07P

    A train disappears from sight in Detroit, heading under the Detroit River on its way to Canada.

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CTY-TUNNEL07P

A train disappears from sight in Detroit, heading under the Detroit River on its way to Canada.

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DETROIT -- In 1930, just a year after the Ambassador Bridge opened over the Detroit River, a second crossing for vehicles made its debut: the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

The governments of Michigan and Canada have sparred in recent years with the private firm that owns the Ambassador Bridge. At issue are projects to modernize the bridge's end plazas, and plans to build a second bridge over the river.

But the cities of Detroit and Windsor, which jointly own the tunnel, have quietly spent more than $50 million on the tunnel in recent years to improve its facilities. That's been in support of what its president and chief executive officer, Neal Belitsky, says is its core market: passenger vehicles and local and regional traffic.

"We continue to be one of the busiest passenger-car crossings on the U.S.-Canada border," Mr. Belitsky said. "That's our prime market, and we anticipate being viable way into the future."

Started in 1928, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is one of three underwater border crossings between Michigan and Ontario. The other two are railroad tunnels, one of which also links Detroit and Windsor.

The other passes beneath the St. Clair River between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ontario. The former opened in 1910, and the St. Clair tunnel opened in 1994 as a replacement for a rail tunnel completed in 1891.

To a large degree, Detroit-Windsor Tunnel LLC has no choice but to focus on passenger vehicles: It's constrained by both its design and its location to remaining a two-lane crossing — one lane each way — that is incapable of handling large trucks. Not only are nearby streets ill configured for long trucks to make turns, but its 13 foot, 2 inch ceiling is too low for many tractor-trailers to clear.

Consequently, of the nearly 3.8 million vehicles that used the tunnel in 2011, only 43,590 were trucks, which Mr. Belitsky said were primarily shorter and lower rigs hauling auto parts and road salt.

The tunnel's 2011 truck count was fewer than its 49,544 trips by buses and miscellaneous vehicles, which was the highest such number among the 11 members of the Public Border Operators' Association, which represents toll crossings of the U.S.-Canada border in Michigan and New York.

The bus count includes frequent trips by Transit Windsor's Tunnel Bus. It offers the only way for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the Detroit-Windsor border since the post-9/11 closing of the Ambassador Bridge's sidewalk.

detroit-canada-tunnel

Cars line up at customs checkpoints in Detroit after traveling through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel from Canada. Nearly 3.8 million vehicles used the the tunnel in 2011.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Mr. Belitsky professes no fear of losing traffic to the new bridge for which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a financing agreement June 15. It largely places the project under Canadian control.

The second bridge is proposed to be built well south of the Ambassador, crossing from the Brighton Beach section of Windsor's west end to the Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit, with links to Ontario's Highway 401 and I-75 at its respective ends. It is expected to take four to five years to build, with a $1 billion cost estimate for the bridge itself and a total package of about $4 billion.

The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel will remain the easterly of the Detroit-Windsor crossings, Mr. Belitsky said, and will be the most direct route for downtown-to-downtown traffic.

Recent improvements, he said, include $9 million to upgrade the plaza and U.S. Customs inspection facilities on the Detroit side, improve the tunnel's energy efficiency, and establish electronic toll collection. The former included widening Randolph Street and adding booths and lanes to the American plaza.

The city of Windsor, meanwhile, has plans to spend $30 million, starting next year, to modernize the tunnel plaza on the Canadian side, Mr. Belitsky said.

"While millions of dollars will be invested to create new infrastructure, governments on both sides of the border should continue to reinvest in the region's existing border infrastructure," he wrote in a position paper released last week.

"Competition in any industry is healthy, and we welcome the opportunity to bring in a new border crossing whenever that happens. And so what's good for the region is good for the border, and for any border crossing that means more jobs."

It is improbable that the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel will ever expand in a meaningful way, Mr. Belitsky said. The nature of its construction — a tube sunk into an open trench in the river bottom, to which connecting tunnels were drilled through bedrock on either bank — precludes any enlargement.

"You'd have to bore a whole new tube, and it would be less expensive to build and maintain a bridge of that length," he said, adding that land acquisition for such a structure in downtown Detroit would be prohibitively expensive.

But build a new tunnel is precisely what the owners of the Detroit-Windsor rail tunnel — known historically as the Michigan Central Tunnel — plan to do. Canadian Pacific Railway and Borealis Infrastructure Trust, a division of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, have aligned with the Windsor Port Authority to create the Continental Rail Gateway.

It will spearhead the 102-year-old tunnel's replacement for the same reason Canadian National Railways replaced the St. Clair Tunnel nearly two decades ago: It's too small for many modern railcars.

USA-Detriot-Windsor-Tunnel-2

A bus emerges from the tunnel in Detroit in early December, 1930. Construction began in 1928. The tunnel, jointly owned by the cities of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, is only one lane each way and cannot be widened.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

CP gouged out enough from one of the two parallel Detroit River tubes in 1993 to squeeze through railcars up to 19 feet tall, but taller cars now in common use still won't fit and CP thus cannot handle them on its Detroit-Toronto-Montreal corridor.

About 460,000 railcars, representing about $21.8 billion in commerce, pass through the existing tunnels annually, said Marge Byington, Continental Rail Gateway's U.S. executive director.

CRG plans to "soft bore" a new tunnel parallel to the existing tubes at an estimated cost of $400 million, Ms. Byington said.

A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permit has been obtained for the project, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comment period for an environmental assessment has ended, and engineering is complete, she said.

Half of the cost is expected to be paid by CP and Borealis, and planners will seek $100 million apiece from state or federal sources in the United States and Canada, Ms. Byington said.

As to what would be done if public funds are unavailable from either side of the border, she said, "We will cross that bridge when we come to it."

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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