With permit poised to expire, Ambassador Bridge’s twin span plan appears dead

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Failing any major last-minute political manoeuvring, the Ambassador Bridge’s proposed twin span project appears dead in the water for the foreseeable future.

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There remain only about 10 weeks until the five-year conditional permit issued by Transport Canada expires for the proposed span, but to date none of a dozen required conditions set out by the federal agency have been met.

Should the bridge company fail to meet those conditions by the end of August, the permit expires and it would force the bridge company to re-start the entire environmental assessment process from scratch.

A spokeswoman for the bridge company did not respond Monday to inquires about the status of the twin-span project.

The current proposal includes a six-lane cable-stayed bridge immediately west of the existing 92-year-old crossing and expansion of the border customs facility on the Windsor side.

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The federal government granted the five-year conditional permit in September 2017 for the bridge company to build a new crossing only if first able to satisfy a number of conditions.

At the top of the list was tearing down the current bridge within five years of the replacement span opening to traffic. The bridge company must submit an acceptable plan to the federal government to do so.

Among other conditions in the Canadian permit is acquiring a stretch of Huron Church Road between College Avenue and Wyandotte Street and constructing a new local road nearby providing the same north-south traffic access.

The company must also build a new fire hall on the west side of Huron Church to replace one on College Avenue, and maintain as parkland an area between Wyandotte Street and Riverside Drive.

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Transport Canada issued the lengthy series of conditions “to mitigate safety and security risks and the impacts on the local community,” a department spokesman said Monday.

The conditions were put in place following consultation with residents, the city of Windsor, Indigenous groups, plus US federal and Michigan state authorities, said Transport Canada’s senior communications advisor, Hicham Ayoun.

“The owner of the Ambassador Bridge is responsible for complying with the conditions of the approval and determining how those conditions will be met,” he said.

“Should the condition to begin construction of the replacement bridge within five years not be met by Aug. 30, the approval for the construction of the replacement bridge would no longer be valid.”

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There has been “regular contact” with the bridge company, but the majority of conditions involved require resolution with the city, he said.

Bridge company officials have met sporadically with city administrators since the conditional permit was issued in 2017, but aside from some email correspondence, there have had no meetings since last September — and none of the permit conditions concerning the city have been resolved, according to the mayor’s office.

Mayor Drew Dilkens did meet in Detroit with bridge owner Matthew Moroun a few months ago, but the discussion was focused on issues related to the bridge blockade that shut the crossing down for a week in February.

“As mayor, I want to see a resolution to the unacceptable situation of boarded-up homes in west Windsor,” Dilkens said Monday. “So far, our negotiations have not been able to bring about a successful resolution that works for our community or the owners of the Ambassador Bridge.”

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The upcoming expiration of the government’s conditional permit could be viewed as a positive step for local residents as it will “provide everyone with an opportunity to reset the dialogue to focus on achievable targets that actually make a difference for Windsor residents,” Dilkens said.

The space where owners of the Ambassador Bridge have proposed a second span to be built is shown Monday, June 13, 2022, and is currently being used for repairs to the existing international span.
The space where owners of the Ambassador Bridge have proposed a second span to be built is shown Monday, June 13, 2022, and is currently being used for repairs to the existing international span. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star

Should the bridge company make a last-minute bid to extend the conditional permit, the city has asked the federal government to “review” the current permit conditions and also include addressing the boarded-up homes in Sandwich.

On the US side, the bridge company is also facing an expiry date of Dec. 19 for its US Coast Guard environmental permit approvals to construct a twin span. Under that permit, the bridge company has to begin construction before that date to remain in compliance, and complete the new span within five years of that date.

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The Coast Guard has also expressed concerns how the two permits are in “conflict” with one another as on the US side the agency granted its approval based on the current crossing being rehabilitated and remaining in place.

One Coast Guard official said last fall if the bridge company wishes to tear down the existing bridge, the Coast Guard would need to begin a new permit process from scratch and “conduct a complete analysis of the current environmental conditions” to account for removal of the existing bridge.

Much of the focus of Moroun and bridge officials in recent weeks on the Detroit side has been on securing a long-desired portion of Riverfront Park — a parcel which is needed as part of its twin span proposal.

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Detroit city council has debated the merits of selling the park parcel to the bridge company. But local politicians there remain divided due to potential community and environmental impacts related to the twin span and Moroun failing to provide clear information on exactly how the park property will be used.

There have been meetings between the two sides and a city council decision is expected soon.

Local MP Brian Masse (NDP – Windsor-West), whose riding includes the Ambassador Bridge, said no extension of the bridge company’s conditional twin span permit should be considered by federal government leaders if brought forward at the last minute.

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“You can see the devastation of the community and closure of homes this company has done,” he said. “They should not be rewarded again for doing nothing. This must be the end of any special privileges — especially when they have offered no community benefits with the project.”

Just “fix up” the current bridge and change its use going forward away from the dominance of international trucks, Masse said.

“If properly maintained there is still a useful purpose for that bridge,” he said. “Perhaps it will serve a different role for the future and we will see a more co-operative approach. But any subsequent approval now (of a permit extension) would be a mistake.

“They have had five years and there has been no movement that is measurable. Everything (around the bridge) still looks terrible. This has remained stuck in neutral, so how do you plan for the future protection of the west end?”

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