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Bridging the Border

Stretching across the Detroit River, a new project, almost twenty years in the making, is aiming to strengthen historical, sporting and trade links between Canada and the United States.

Around one and a half miles of water separate the cities of Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit River slices between the two, creating a border that was originally bridged by Gordie Howe back in 1946. Howe, the Canadian professional ice hockey player played twenty-five seasons for the Detroit Red Wings, leaving an indelible mark on the city and the sport itself. He was the only player to play in five decades of the NHL and his records are still unrivalled, finishing in the top 5 for goal scoring in 20 consecutive seasons, a record unsurpassed by any other hockey player. When a plan was developed to link the two cities with its first publicly owned bridge, it is unsurprising that the name Gordie Howe was considered a worthy choice. His son Marty agreed, highlighting the symbolism of the bridge being named after a Canadian man who spent the best years of his NHL career in Detroit.

With global concerns continuing to dominate the thoughts and plans of people across all sectors of business and life, the concept of developing and strengthening connections and links are more worthwhile than ever. Notwithstanding that, the bridge construction also makes solid economic sense. Trade relations between the United States and Canada are the second most valuable in the world. The goods and services passing between the US and China is the only trade connection that is consistently on a larger scale. Currently, trade through the region passes over the privately owned Ambassador Bridge. However, the opportunity to utilize this border crossing has huge benefit to local economies; trade across the existing bridge alone is equivalent to the trade relationship between the US and several other countries. First proposed in 2004, and due for completion in 2024, the Gordie Howe International Bridge will also span the waters between Windsor and Detroit, two and a half miles downriver from the existing crossing.

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA) CA$5.7 Billion-dollar fixed price bridge project is projected to be two and a half kilometres long. Comprising of two towering 220m A shaped structures on the riverbanks of each city. When completed it will be the longest cable-stayed bridge structure in North America. Traffic will be able travel across it over six lanes and there is also provision for a multi-use cycle and walking path. Unlike the Ambassador Bridge which links to the city streets of Ontario, the bridge will offer the additional benefit of uninterrupted traffic flow, seamlessly connecting to Highway 401.

Despite a series of legal challenges from rival interests, the project was eventually green lit in 2018 and awarded to a consortium of companies. Aecom, Dragados, Fluor and ACS Infrastructure operating under the business name ‘Bridging North America’ were named as design, build, operations, and maintenance of the project.

“The benefits to the local community and economy continues apace with at least 2500 job opportunities and 150 local businesses becoming involved in development and construction.”

Throughout various stages of its development, the bridge has gone by various names and titles. The Detroit River International Crossing and New International Trade Crossing being two. David Bradley of the Ontario Trucking Association proposed naming the bridge after a sporting legend, one that has been a huge facet of life for people on both sides of the Detroit River. The logic was evident, a physical structure to connect communities that have been linked for generations by this man and his achievements. The bridge was finally named the Gordie Howe International Bridge in 2015.

The project has received much admiration in industry quarters and in 2019 won the prestigious Oracle Project of the Year award in Engineering Category. Bryce Phillips, CEO – WDBA was understandably proud of the achievement. ‘We are honoured to be this year’s recipient of the prestigious Oracle Project of the Year award in the Engineering Project category from CG/LA. The Gordie Howe International Bridge project is significant both in its scope and its engineering complexity. WDBA is proud to work with our private-sector partner, Bridging North America, in delivering North America’s longest cable-stayed bridge.’

While trade and design are massive aspects of this project, it was important that the bridge would include positive community features also. One example of this was the need to incorporate sustainable targets and benefits. As a result of this, the project has received praise for its positive environmental and community impact. The multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists, LEED V4 Silver for Buildings rating and community benefits plan has been lauded as a design success.

Bryce went on to explain that the Windsor – Detroit Bridge Authority’s determination to sustainable is unquestionable ‘WDBA is committed to sustainability in the construction and operations of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project. Sustainable development is important not only to us, but to the Government of Canada and our stakeholders. As such, it is our duty to them to consider the financial and nonfinancial impacts of our operations by integrating environmental, social, and economic dimensions in our management approach. The future success of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project depends on the sustainable work we do today and in the years to come.’

Clearly, sustainable processes are of benefit to the industry and local community. However, by including sustainable features at design stage, the bridge will continue to benefit both local and transient wildlife into the future. LED lighting across the entire bridge span means that in addition to a high level of energy efficiency and low maintenance, the bridge avoids excessive light spill and does not unduly affect the patterns of migratory birds. These include Peregrine Falcons, a species of special concern on Canadian Shorelines. For this purpose, the bridge will also include Falcon Boxes to aid in nesting and further enhance its environmental commitment.

The benefits to the local community and economy continues apace with at least 2500 job opportunities and 150 local businesses becoming involved in development and construction. Many of these jobs being allocated to local citizens of the Detroit and Windsor metropolitan areas.

The funding for the substantial investment involved is coming solely from the Canadian Government and is expected to hit CA$6 Billion when the overall totals are finalized. Tolls estimated from the crossings yearly are expected to surpass CA$70 Million and the Canadian Government will receive all this revenue for the next 50 years. The amount of traffic crossing the border daily is expected to increase from approximately 17,000 currently to about 26,000 in 2025.

While COVID-19 impacted some of the productivity in the early months of 2020, construction has thankfully resumed. Officials involved in the project are confident they are still on schedule. There is also a firm belief that even if a second or third wave strikes they can stay on track. A spokesperson for the WDBA recently stated ‘The spacious footprint of the project lends itself to social distancing. With a requirement of face masks for employees, minimal close contact and virtual meetings the development and construction can continue relatively unabated.’

Despite challenges that effect all corners of the globe, creating obstacles that many never saw coming, Bryce Phillips has witnessed genuine innovation and dedication throughout the construction project. Mr Phillips is very grateful to all the parties for their perseverance with the project ‘Despite the need to change the way we all both live and work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not slowed down. I would like to take this opportunity to thank WDBA and Bridging North America staff, as well as our contractors, for their dedication over the last two years.’

In 1974, almost thirty years into his career, Gordie Howe was named Most Valuable Player. This came at a time of his life where he had already come out of retirement to score over 100 points in two separate seasons. His dedication to his craft, coupled with the respect he earned as a person outside the game, makes Gordie Howe an ideal person to represent positive connections between Detroit and Canada. When informed about the naming of the bridge in June 2015 by his son –Howe was unable to attend the naming ceremony due to ill health—the 87-year-old’s reply was, ‘That sounds pretty good to me.’ Gordie Howe died a year later in June 2016.

The Gordie Howe International bridge is currently one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America and if the huge undertaking stays on target the Detroit – Windsor river skyline could have a very different view in the late part of 2024.

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