Gordie Howe Bridge Inching Towards Grand 2024 Opening
There can no longer be any doubt that the Gordie Howe International Bridge will be built. It’s full throttle ahead, or as fast as a hulking $5.7 billion bi-national project can possibly move forward. Barring the unforeseen, it’s warp speed in glacial terms.
I recently attended a three-session Elder College course entitled “Bringing A Bridge To Life,” delivered by engaging staff of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA), a non-profit federal Crown Corporation. WDBA already employs 65 people, with offices at 100 Ouellette Avenue, steering and monitoring the project.
In advertising the course, Elder College tub thumpers declared the Gordie Howe International Bridge “irrevocably changes the Windsor-Detroit skyline with a new iconic structure.”
Upon completing the course, and viewing renderings of the finished product, I have actually determined the tub thumpers could be accused of understatement. Go online to the website and see the stunning images for yourself.
I wrote copious notes, asked penetrating questions and read all the handouts, only to conclude that I could write a book or three on this project. So this column is concentrated on the big picture.
The final Elder College session included a bus load of seniors visiting ground zero of the project adjacent to Broadway Street, just north of the E.C. Row and Ojibway Parkway interchange in Windsor’s far west end.
Even a hard boiled skeptic like myself had to confess to being blown away by the scope and minute engineering and environmental details of the project. Species at risk are being meticulously cared for and they’re even building a box for peregrine falcon nests under the bridge.
“They literally thought of everything,” enthused tour guide Stephanie Campeau of the stakeholder consulting, planning and design.
The preliminary work of the six year construction of the bridge, targeted to open for traffic in late 2024, has started in earnest. The 130 acre Canadian Port of Entry site is brimming with activity, deploying cranes and caissons drilling into bedrock for the foundations of the bridge’s piers.
Fifty trailers already occupy the future plaza. Over one million tonnes of granular fill equal to 34 shiploads have been dumped to grade the site.
Campeau showed us the fish saving improvements to the nearby Broadway Drain, which, along with a perimeter road and utility relocates, cost a cool $58 million.
In November of 2017, the Canadian government advanced $350 million to WDBA, for early work on the Canadian and American Ports of Entry.
As of the end of March 2019, Canada has invested $559 million total in preparatory activities since 2006, all intended to be recovered one day by tolls.
Contractor Bridging North America, the private sector partner in the project’s public-private-partnership (P3), already employs 150 people of the approximate 2,500 expected to be hired. Preliminary construction work has also begun on the American site, adjacent to the depressed Delray community.
The final product, three kilometres west of the Ambassador Bridge, will have six lanes, no piers in the water, have a total length of 853 metres, and the longest main span of any cable-stayed bridge in North America. The peak construction years are targeted for 2021 to 2023.
The bridge will include a green multi-use path, toll free for cyclists and pedestrians. The bridge will range from white to dark grey in colour and will be illuminated with high powered LED lighting. The bridge tower shape will reflect the curvature of a hockey stick.
Now for a history lesson. It all started 18 years ago, when four governments representing Canada, the U.S., Ontario and Michigan began planning the dream project in 2001. That’s when 9/11 happened, creating intolerable truck traffic bottlenecks. The need for a new crossing intensified. Optimists back then pegged 2011 for the grand opening.The construction timetable, originally estimated at 40 to 48 months, has since been revised to 74 months.
The Border Transportation Partnership was formed in 2014, followed by the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) mega study that examined 15 different crossing options to get trucks off city streets. The exhaustive exercise finally decided on the current location, just east of Zug Island, in the summer of 2008.
The twinning of the Ambassador Bridge was never considered, inciting owner Matty Moroun to launch a battery of legal actions against various government bodies. The litigation has mostly proven fruitless, except to stuff the pockets of lawyers and contribute to delays.
Construction of the Herb Gray Parkway, the access route from the 401 to the new bridge, was approved in 2005, funded by the Ontario government and completed in 2015 at a cost of $1.4 billion. The 11 kilometre, six lane parkway, eliminated 12 stoplights on Huron Church Road.
That laid the groundwork for the Gordie Howe International Bridge to be built as the final cog to properly connect the 401 to a new Detroit River crossing. The 401 opened in 1952, minus the foresight of separating monster trucks from the Huron Church business district and the historic Sandwich West residential area.
Unfortunately, there were a number of false starts that delayed bridge construction and fed the mantra of naysayers that the parkway was a road to nowhere.
After being controversially named in 2015 by hockey fan and former Prime Minister Steven Harper, and ex Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the news surfaced in early 2016 that the bridge would miss its 2020 target for completion.
It was actually Harper who saved the day, offering up the Government of Canada to fund the colossal project when the Americans wouldn’t cough up anything. Private sector consortiums were invited to bid on building and operating the bridge, and that process dragged on until the Bridging North America conglomerate was chosen in mid-2018.
The government didn’t blink when the projected cost of building the bridge more than doubled — from $2.1 billion to $4.8 billion CAD — once the cascading worth of Canadian currency was factored in.
Now it turns out the cost will be the aforementioned $5.7 billion. Canada will ante up $3.8 billion for the design and construction and Bridging North America will cover $1.9 million and part of the risk, under a fixed cost contact, to build, operate and maintain the bridge over 36 years, when it will, presumably, be turned over to Canada.
This is all intended to be paid off by tolls, which according to Heather Grondin, WDBA Vice President of Communications and Stakeholder Relations, will be competitive with tolls at other Ontario border crossings such as Niagara Falls’ Rainbow Bridge, Sarnia’s Blue Water Bridge, and I am assuming the Ambassador Bridge, which is planning to build a single span replacement to its 90 year old structure when all the onerous Transport Canada conditions are met. That’s a whole other story.
Meanwhile, the bridge authority has promised to spend $12 million on community improvements to Sandwich Street, including resurfacing the road. Delray will also receive $12 million for improvements.
And what if the tolls don’t cover everything in the 30 years after the traffic starts flowing? That’s a certainty according to naysayers, who cite declining or stagnating cross border truck traffic.
It could take 50 or 60 years to repay Canadian taxpayers, Grondin blithely told the Elder College audience, noting the life expectancy of the bridge is 125 years. “It’s such a massive, massive project, things will happen,” Grondin predicted.
Now that construction of the bridge is underway and public pride in its ownership is swelling, objections to the enormous price of the project have begun to wane.
According to The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, which recently named the Gordie Howe Bridge its “Outstanding Emerging Project,” the P3 model will result in savings of approximately $562.8 million as compared to delivery of the project using traditional procurement methods.
Believe it or not!