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Tolls tell the tale of two bridges

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s approval Friday of a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., might at first glance seem to be a sign that the Motor City has its border-crossing act together – and that Buffalo, beset by decades of controversy over expanding the Peace Bridge, does not.

But in fact, just the opposite may be true.

Experts familiar with both border crossings said they do not expect the new Detroit span to challenge the Peace Bridge or Western New York’s other border bridges in any way.

Moreover, some said plans for the new Detroit-Windsor bridge are really just a sign of unhappiness with the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which now connects the two cities, charging passenger tolls that are more than three times higher than those at the Peace Bridge.

There’s no doubt, though, that the new six-lane, $2 billion bridge would be a huge development for Detroit. Michigan officials said the span would create 12,000 direct jobs and as many as 31,000 indirect spin-off jobs.

“This is huge,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told reporters. ”It’s more than a bridge to me. It’s about jobs and our future in this state.”

And for Buffalo officials who watched in pain as plans for a “signature” Peace Bridge died amid cost and design concerns, the Michigan announcement was a source of some frustration.

“This should be us,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “And it will be us when we’re ready.”

At the same time, though, neither Higgins nor any of several other sources interviewed for this report said they see the new Detroit bridge as an attraction that will lure truck traffic and other business toward the Detroit area and away from Western New York and southeastern Ontario.

“I don’t see it as competition at all,” Higgins said.

Canadian traffic heading for the Midwest or West now typically goes across the Ambassador Bridge, while Canadian traffic bound for the Eastern U.S. comes across the Buffalo-area international bridges, experts said.

Similarly, Canada-bound traffic from the Western U.S. now often crosses the border at Detroit, while Canada-bound traffic from the Eastern states usually passes through Buffalo or Lewiston.

But is there any evidence that, if one border crossing is more modern and less congested than another 250 miles away, then truckers would opt for the less-congested route even if it is out of the way?

“Every study we ever saw, and there are only a few, says no,” said James B. Kane, who for years led a recently mothballed effort to build a for-profit bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.

And the reason for that is just common sense: “Why go so far out of your way just because traffic might be tied up at the Peace Bridge?” Kane asked.

But a modern bridge in Detroit conceivably could prove to be competition for Buffalo in one way, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge. If, over time, one border crossing appears to be easier and cheaper to use, export-driven businesses may tend to congregate near that cheaper, easier-to-cross bridge, he said.

For now, though, Western New York’s border spans have huge advantages over the Ambassador Bridge, several experts said.

For example, the round-trip passenger toll on the Peace Bridge is $2.70.

At the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, it’s $9.50.

That being the case, Kane speculated that Canada may be pressing to build a new Detroit-Windsor span to try to get the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, to lower his tolls – or even to drive him out of business.

Yet high tolls are not the only detriment to motorists using the Ambassador Bridge.

Government-sanctioned companies that inspect cargo at the Peace Bridge do so on-site, said David W. Odden, president of BCB International, a Buffalo-based customs brokerage.

As a result, Odden’s company paid only $5,000 in inspection fees last year.

In Detroit, those cargo inspectors often order inspections to take place off-site – and tend to be lavishly diligent at their jobs. As a result, Odden said, his company paid an astronomical $300,000 in fees in Detroit on about the same amount of cargo that it had processed in Buffalo for $5,000.

Similarly, Odden said his company pays three times more in rent for its facility at the Ambassador Bridge than it does for its site at the Peace Bridge.

“Buffalo is much more efficient than Michigan” at its border crossing, Odden said.

And things will likely get even better locally, he said, once an experimental plan to pre-inspect U.S.-bound cargo in Fort Erie takes effect.

Meanwhile at the Detroit-Windsor border, Canada has agreed to pay for and operate the new border crossing.

“Canada and the United States are each other’s most important trading partners,” said Lisa Raitt, Canada’s minister of labor. “The Presidential Permit represents an important step towards a new bridge, which will be needed for growing trade and traffic at the busiest Canada-U.S. commercial border crossing with over 8,000 trucks crossing each day.”

Thanks in large part to frequent travel between Detroit-area auto plants and their counterparts in Windsor, some 1.54 million truck crossings were reported at Detroit last year, compared with 940,221 at the border bridges of Western New York. Only 4.23 million passenger vehicles crossed the border at Detroit, compared with 6.1 million at the Buffalo and Niagara Falls bridges.

Higgins said that Detroit’s plans should revive interest in an eventual expansion of the Peace Bridge. But at the same time, he acknowledged that any grand, comprehensive plan for a “signature” bridge is likely to remain dead while piece-by-piece improvements to the Peace Bridge plaza move forward.

As for Detroit’s grand plans, they could get stymied by legal action.

Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, already has filed suit to try to stop the competing project, and a Michigan state legislator is suing as well, arguing that the state’s governor didn’t have the authority to strike a deal for a new bridge with Canada.

In other words, Detroit’s expansive plans may soon be mired in the same sort of interminable delays that eventually killed the Peace Bridge expansion.

“There will be years of litigation,” Kane predicted.