A free ride over the Gordie Howe for cyclists

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Windsor Star/Ann Jarvis



There is such a thing as a free ride.

Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Francois-Philippe Champagne announced in Windsor on Thursday that cyclists crossing the new Gordie Howe International Bridge won’t have to pay a toll.

Bike Windsor Essex, which has been calling for this, raised it again when the minister met with community groups to talk about what the project could do for the community.

“The community told me that’s what they wanted,” he said.

Champagne toured construction on the Canadian side and also met with business leaders from manufacturing to greenhouse growers to logistics.

“The main takeaway was to be forward-looking, thinking about technology, about fluidity for both people and goods, making sure we get prepared on both sides of the border,” said Champagne, who attended the ceremonial groundbreaking for the $5.7-billion bridge with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last October.

The biggest challenge will be getting labour for the project, he said. About 2,500 workers will be needed for construction, which will take five years. WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation Stephen MacKenzie wants as many local workers as possible hired. But Champagne predicted people from across Canada will also move their families here for jobs.

MacKenzie also wants local companies, where possible, to get contracts. Champagne talked about seminars for local small- and medium-size businesses to learn how they can benefit from construction.

But Windsor also needs to think about the long term, MacKenzie said, and Champagne agreed.

The new bridge, built to last more than 100 years, must be able to accommodate evolving technology. Traffic should be seamless to maintain the auto industry’s integrated supply chains. It should also include climate-controlled secondary inspection for the almost $1 billion in fresh produce from Essex County that crosses the border.

With Highway 401, railways, an airport, a port on the Great Lakes and soon a new bridge to the U.S., Windsor, where 30 percent of trade between Canada and the U.S. crosses the border, can also develop a major transportation, logistics and warehousing hub.

“This is a catalyst,” Champagne said. “How can we build everything around to really revitalize the community?”

Joan Mavrinac, co-chair of the Windsor Essex Community Benefits Coalition, told the minister that the $20 million that will be spent on the community on both sides of the crossing should be for things that people can see.

“You should be able to point to things and say, ‘This is what we got,’ and like the bridge, they should be lasting, not a one-off,” she said.

The coalition also wants a legacy fund, with the interest paying for small projects in the community long after the bridge is built. She even suggested that a portion of the toll revenue pay for ongoing community improvements.

“This is something that’s affecting all of us,” she said.

Champagne didn’t commit to the legacy fund, but he said, “I want the community to own the bridge, in a way, so this is something we do together, that we build together, that everyone can be proud of. It’s important because this will be with the community for at least a century.”

Champagne, former international trade minister who understands this region, spoke with many of the people at the meetings individually, spent almost double his allotted time with the two groups, wrote a lot of notes and committed to returning again. He held up his notes and said they would inform his meeting with the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority, which is overseeing the project, later that day.

“The meeting was very much an exchange, an opportunity to put thoughts forward,” said Mavrinac. “He was very clear he wanted to hear from everyone.”

Said Champagne, “It’s been a really good day. A lot of people contributed.”

The minister will meet with business leaders in Detroit on Friday as well as Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a vocal defender of the vulnerable Delray neighbourhood on the U.S side of the new crossing.