A new Canada-U.S. border crossing and Windsor’s economic boom

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so I was born in Windsor I grew up in the Windsor area in fact in a town called amsburg which is where the Detroit River empties out into Lake Erie that’s the Globes science reporter Ivan seic and that River has been a a feature of my life you know going back to Childhood it’s always been a fascinating kind of geographic element in my life but the river’s landscape is changing with the building of a massive new bridge the Gordy how inter AAL Bridge it’s the largest ever built between Canada and the US not only is the bridge vital for expanding trade between the two countries but it’s also a feat of engineering the two sides of the bridge joined over the river in June but it’s not supposed to open to traffic until next fall after years of delays and cost increases so today Ivan is on the show to explain how the bridge is being constructed and the impact it will have on future crossb trade I’m man ramman willms and this is the decel from the globe in mail Ivan it’s great to have you here manica it is great to be here I we’re going to start just really basic here what is this new bridge this Gordy how international bridge tell me about it we’ll start with a name Gordy how for those who may not remember was a longtime uh NHL born in Saskatchewan played uh more than 20 Seasons with the Detroit Red Wings so it’s sort of a name that resonates on both sides of the Border uh you know a Canadian who uh you know was sort of a a local hero for for Detroit hockey the Detroit river is a very short but very wide river it’s about as wide as the Mississippi so it’s not an insignificant body of water to cross it’s extremely busy with uh Lake and oceangoing uh boats that ply up and down the Great Lakes and the crossing over that river is the busiest trade Corridor between Canada and the US so it’s a very important Crossing economically and the fact that a new structure is appearing to essentially expand that Corridor is very significant for the region and the fact that it will also have this sort of spectacular design and and be a very obvious feature on the landscape gives it even more weight I think and we’re going to get into the design stuff for sure uh but just first how how big is this bridge going to be when it’s done it’s big uh it’s a type of bridge that uh is the design is called cable state it will when it’s completed be the largest bridge of that type in North America so the total length of the bridge is 2 and 1 12 kilm the central span which is where you really measure how big of a deal the bridge is the central span is uh about 853 M wide which is the width of the river at that point um so it’s it’s a really significant structure and Ivan you actually visited the bridge recently C can you just describe what you saw and what it felt like to be on that it was great fun we had an opportunity to visit the site we went up on a temporary cage you know up to the to the bridge deck so the towers reach up to 220 M but the deck is um 42 to 46 m and uh that itself is like standing on a 10-story building almost like being on the wing of an airplane when you’re up there and you’re looking down over the river you can see the other Bridge far away you can look down the river the other side as it kind of opens up and Ships coming and going and what you really notice when you’re on that roadway is looking up and seeing these all of these cables sort of uh converging like uh in a perspective drawing you know converging on the vanishing point up high where they’re attached to the Tower hours each one though is a bundle of smaller steel cables they’ll be sheathed in a kind of plastic casing that also has structures on it for example to uh discourage ice buildup and and other things but inside it’s almost like strands of dental floss you know you’ve got these smaller cables that are all bundled together if you could put them all end to end it would be about 5,000 kmet long so it would pretty much stretch across Canada if you could take all the cabling on this bridge and that’s what’s really carrying the load of the deck and carrying it right up to the top of the towers and it’s those cables Fanning out that I think really give the bridge almost like a delicate quality because they you know from a distance they look like little strings but you know you realize that the entire weight of that thing is hanging on them wow it it sounds like a quite a project here really um and you mentioned it’s called a cable State bridge design Ian so what what does that mean and and then how does it look so from an engineering point of view there are a few different kinds of bridges you know when we look back in history we sort of think you know the classic bridges of the 19th century were these kind of iron truss bridges like you sort of Imagine them in the old movies you know with locomotives going across them and so on but the 20th century was really defined by the big suspension bridges you know these are the ones that have two big cables draped over a couple of towers usually it’s the Golden Gate Bridge for example in San Francisco and in fact over the Detroit River there’s a suspension bridge called the Ambassador Bridge opened in 1929 and when it opened it was at that time the world’s largest suspension bridge so the Detroit River has seen big Bridges and has has you know kind of broken records in the Bridge Department in the past what has changed is materials and design has changed to the point where often it is more advantageous to do a different type of bridge it’s it’s something like a suspension bridge but instead of these big giant cables that you kind of see going across and then they have to be anchored far back on either side instead you’ve got the two towers and then you kind of have a fan of smaller cables extending downward these kinds of bridges are very uh efficient in terms of materials uh they actually take less material than a suspension bridge and they’re good for sort of an intermediate length once the span of the bridge has to be more than a kilometer people tend to not do the cable State Bridges they tend to go back to the traditional suspension bridge and you said the main part of the bridge is 850 M so it’s getting up there right so but this one is in the zone where a large cable State Bridge could be done the way the load is distributed you can have kind of a lighter Road deck use less material on the deck uh in fact the entire deck is only about 2 and 1/2 M thick so when you’re looking at this bridge from a distance it almost looks like a rib in the sky it is so thin and it’s got these lovely cables snaking down so the other side effect is that uh in addition to being more efficient on materials there’s a kind of Airy quality to these cable State Bridges and so this is an example where it’s not just a big building but it’s a very pretty structure that everyone is marveling at as it takes shape and as you’re describing it Ian so you’re talking about the two kind of pillars on either side of the land it sounds like there’s no structures in the water though as supports right that’s interesting that was a design Choice early on so various companies competed to design the bridge so the winning design U made that choice that the river is uh you know about 850 M wide so they could manage to build the two towers on either side without ever having to build anything in the water so no part of this bridge actually touches the water uh whereas you know just up the river 5 kilm the Ambassador Bridge does have its two main tow positioned right in the water so of course that would add to the work in constructing the bridge if you have to Dam off part of the river and then start constructing in the river bed so it saves on time and cost if you don’t have to build in the water and of course there’s a safety factor and we all saw this too with the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore where a ship colliding with a bridge and this you know it’s not always with a spectacular destruction of the bridge but it’s still a problem so they have kind of removed that navigational Hazard and of course they did this long before the Baltimore situation but that was another choice that was made and essentially once they made that choice and decided you know the Bedrock was fine to support these big towers the design kind of float from there wow okay so Ivan as you mentioned we’ve already got the Ambassador Bridge we also have the Detroit Windor tunnel for for vehicles to go through as well so if we already have these two Crossings why do we need this new bridge well well both of those Crossings are approaching 100 years old the the bridge in 1929 the tunnel in 1930 the ceiling height of the tunnel doesn’t accommodate large trucks so you can kind of take that off the table for a lot of trade the bridge the Ambassador Bridge has four lanes of traffic two in each Direction and that’s how the situation has been for this busiest Crossing between Canada and the US for close to a century the idea of expanding that uh has been on the table for decades growing up in that area it seemed to me there was always some talk of you know would there ever be another bridge where would it be how would it work who would pay for it you know these are always kind of open questions floating in the air I think what really brought it home was 911 you know the Border was closed very abruptly and the impact was immediate and measurable when the trade was cut off so I think that was a bit of a stimulus for governments on both sides uh the Ambassador Bridge has always been privately owned and uh and at the time was owned by a fairly combative uh businessman uh named Matty maroon his plan was to double or twin the Ambassador Bridge have another Bridge right beside it running right through uh Downtown Windsor and you know kind of was was looking for support to do that but there were problems there including the fact that it would mean kind of plowing through several neighborhoods in Windsor with the increased traffic and and it wasn’t just the fact that you needed another Bridge there needed to be a better connection between the highways on both sides the 401 in Ontario I75 in Michigan and when you’ve got all these trucks kind of trundling through City traffic you know that was also a problem after years of study the Canadian government then reached an agreement with State and and federal governments in the US about where the bridge could be built um Canada took on the cost of building the bridge entirely Canada’s paying pay the whole shot it’s kind of the opposite of the Ambassador Bridge which was paid for you know by us interests back then but the um payoff there is that Canada collects all the tolls from the bridge which will all be paid on the Canadian side so over time the bridge will pay for itself I think that’s the idea so the location of the bridge um not only increases the amount of traffic that can go over it’s got six Lanes so three going each Direction so um kind of you know between the tunnel and and the Ambassador Bridge effectively doubles the number of lanes you know there was a study actually that the Bridge Commission but it was done uh independently by this crossborder institute at the University of Windsor their estimate and this is back in 2021 their estimate is that the bridge would save 850,000 hours a year of Transit time we be be right back so this is interesting so you we’ve talked about why it’s so important to have this bridge for for trade between the two countries but I I want to come back to this point about why Canada is paying for the entire Bridge Ivan like doesn’t this bridge benefit both countries why are we paying for it it’s a complicated Dynamic uh you know because you’ve got both state and uh Federal uh governments involved and then you’ve got this private owner of the Ambassador Bridge doing everything possible to try to slow things down with lawsuits buying up properties to try to get in the way of a new bridge being built all all of that sort of thing so I think at some ways it may have been easier for Canada to take this on you know we’ve seen in the US how how complicated it can be at times to get infrastructure projects through Congress for example so it it may be that you know the whole dynamic made it easier for Canada to do this and you mentioned that there were some delay with the owner of the Ambassador Bridge wanting some slightly different plans um I also understand of course the pandemic set this back a little bit how how did that affect things well construction really began after 2018 uh and uh you know Bridges like this usually take a few years but this one has now been under construction for essentially six years uh the pandemic was uh you can imagine on a on a major construction site when people are in lockdown you know that’s going to set everything back so it that did set back things more than a year and it also increased the cost but it’s not just the pandemic I mean if you pay attention to you know Bridge stuff uh big bridges are going up around the world uh you know in Southeast Asia in the Middle East for example but mostly these bridges are being built in warm climates where it’s actually possible to uh to work longer and you may have longer work days as well despite the fact that we think of Windsor is not the coldest part of Canada for many of the people who are coming to work on this project from abroad uh it’s still a relatively cool place and so uh the winter time slows down the construction quite a bit Ian we’ve talked a little bit about the economics at play here but let’s get into this more so in the last few years Windsor has really started to see more economic growth of course there’s that new battery plant the the next star EV battery plant that’s there the city’s econom is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2.9% this is according to the conference Board of Canada over the next 3 years I guess can you put this into context for us what is the role of this new Gordy how Bridge in in relation to this growth that’s happening you know if you spend a lot of time in the area you don’t think of it so much as being on the edge of something as you’re kind of at the center of something so it’s important to re recognize that when we’re talking about Windsor and Detroit how they’re interl economically having a piece of infrastructure like this in place and having a smooth flow of people and goods across that watery thoroughfare is kind of essential exactly how much it will benefit is hard to say it will certainly bring jobs you know just kind of running the bridge and uh make certain things easier in terms of moving things back and forth but uh I think as time goes on and it becomes a fact of life both for goods and for the people who are trying to get from one place to another it’ll be hard to imagine life without it and just again to put this in context Ivan like how much trade actually goes through this Corridor 19% of all crossborder trade goes through the Detroit Windsor Corridor so that’s a lot for all of Canada considering all the different border crossings there are I mean there are nine other Bridges just in the Great Lakes area none of them compared to the traffic that’s going across here um 30% of all truck traffic between Canada and the US uh and that is essentially almost all of that now crossing the Ambassador Bridge um of course this region and the the Detroit River has been a significant place for trade and crossing for a long time right um I want to look at kind of some of this you know the history from the 19th and the 20th century if we can Ivan can you just tell me a little bit about how that took shape in this region sure it’s such an interesting part of the world and it’s so often overlooked you know this for thousands of years indigenous people have lived here moved back and forth there are historic trails that indigenous people used the famous trails that come to Crossing points on the river so that history is there when Europeans first arrived it was actually the French who first started to explore this region coming basically from New France from Quebec and they were literally stunned by what they saw and you just have to imagine of course the St Lawrence is beautiful but Quebec is pretty far north and it’s a harsh climate for um the the French colonists that were trying to make a go of it in the St Lawrence imagine explorers coming down and seeing the Detroit River seeing this incredibly Rich area and also so much milder in climate it just seemed like wow this is a focal point lots and lots of settlers arrived over the following Decades of the 1700s and then it changed soon after with the American Revolution so then the Michigan side ended up becoming part of the United States so the strange thing for the region was that this focal point suddenly became divided uh along an international boundary you know even though for so long it was more of a a main street in a way so despite the fact that it’s two separate countries the need for it to be a crossing point has never gone away uh so then into the 19th century into the 1800s the back and forth trade was always present and there was always pressure for more so obviously Boats were important fairies and so on when the railway came then there was the question well how do we get the train across so uh for a good chunk of time there were faery boats that would literally take rail cars back and forth between Detroit and Windsor by 1910 the Michigan Central Railway had built a tunnel under the river so the the first effort to cross uh without a boat was to go under the river with a tunnel uh but that was for rail cars and it was at that moment that automobiles were starting to become popular and you could see that the need for a bridge uh was there the question was going to be how big of a bridge because it was going to have to be big enough to cross the width of the river not insignificant and high enough to allow these Steamers going up and down and by then the boats going up and down the river we getting pretty big so by the time you get to the Ambassador Bridge you know we’re talking Monumental 20th century scale and any other Crossing since then has had to sort of be in that domain wow that’s so interesting we’ve talked about a lot of the economics here Ivan but can for a moment can we just kind of look at the symbolism of this project and what this bridge means like what does this represent the two sides have been interacting since long before Canada or the United States existed as countries so it’s the most natural thing in the world I think to facilitate that Crossing of course it shows that friendly relationship between Canada and the US it hasn’t really happened in our lifetime to see a project like this in this part of the world big bridges are being built elsewhere around the globe but the Great Lakes is an old industrial area has not seen seen a lot of new infrastructure so it’s amazing to have it in our backyard just lastly Before I Let You Go Ivan so what has to happen next in the construction and and when can we actually see this this bridge open what’s interesting is now that we have the two sides touching the bridge now officially is a Crossing because you can actually now get from one side to the other so border agencies are now present on the site on both sides workers have to show their papers just to get on the work site now because uh in theory you could cross now so it has become a legal Crossing there were some labor issues actually with these uh the border security agencies uh but it looks like at the moment that we’re speaking now it looks like those things are not going to be an obstacle now uh and then um the final construction of the bridge will take place so there there’s more finishing work to be done on the structure you have the buildings on either side that will be the ports of Entry you know think of all the buildings that are at of typical border crossing and this will be a busy border crossing so it’s you know these are large installations um it’ll be about a year before everything is done the projected opening is sometime for the fall of 2025 okay Ivan this was so interesting thank you for being here thank you that’s it for today I’m manica ramman welms this episode was produced by our intern Kelsey arnet our producers are meline white Cheryl Sutherland and Rachel Levy McLaughlin David Crosby edits the show Adrien Chong is our senior producer and Matt frer is our managing editor thanks so much for listening and I’ll talk to you soon

For the first time in almost a century, North America’s busiest border crossing – between Detroit and Windsor – is expanding. The Gordie Howe International Bridge is finally connected after six years of construction and a slew of delays, cost increases and political woes. The bridge is expected to improve trade between Canada and the U.S., while bolstering Windsor’s economic revitalization.

The Globe’s national science reporter, Ivan Semeniuk, joins the show to discuss the bridge’s progress, what its economic effects will be and why the bridge is more than just a physical connection.

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