Detroit River rail tunnel will start construction next year, say project leaders

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Windsor Star/Dave Battagello

Backers of the $400-million Detroit River rail tunnel project said Monday they expect construction will start next year on the long-awaited border crossing.

Full environmental approvals were granted in the summer on the U.S. side with only a presidential permit required before construction can begin, said Marge Byington, corporate affairs director for the project.

“We are in good shape on the U.S. side,” she said. “We have all the permits except the presidential permit. We have spoken to the State Department (which oversees presidential permits). I don’t see us having a significant problem. We have not yet gone through the formal application process. It’s just a matter of timing.”

The proposed rail tunnel has been talked about for more than a decade and changed names several times. The rail tunnel group is currently known as Continental Rail Gateway.

The current Detroit River rail tunnel opened in 1910 and remains in good condition, but is too small for today’s double-stacked rail cars. CP currently pays a fee to CN Rail to use of its rail tunnel in Sarnia when its larger cars need to cross the border.

The new rail tunnel would use the existing corridor that leads to the current tunnel entrance south of Wyandotte Street West between Wellington Avenue and Cameron Avenue. The new tunnel would be built a few dozen metres to the west.

But several hurdles remain on the Canadian side, including federal environmental approvals, approval by cabinet in Ottawa and government funding support.

But construction will get going next year, said David Cree, CEO of the Windsor Port Authority, a partner in the project.

“We are close to having all the environmental (approvals) done on the Canadian side,” he said. “We are projecting to start in 2014. We should have all permits in place, certainly by next summer.

“We are meeting with federal officials and talking funding. I think they realize the importance of the project  We are having productive discussions with them. There is no commitment at this point, but we are having good discussions with them.”

The current rail tunnel and Continental Rail Gateway project belong primarily to CP Railway and Borealis Transportation — a division under the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

The partners, along with the port authority, have committed to paying $200 million toward the project. But construction will not start until the partners secure the remaining $200 million from government sources in Canada and the U.S.

The project recently received a $10 million commitment from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Byington said. Discussions have taken place with U.S. government officials which she believes will lead to more funds.

“From the indication I have received, they are supportive, she said. “The need for a double-stack tunnel has not diminished.”

Transport Canada confirmed Monday that government officials and rail tunnel backers have met to discuss funding.

The rail tunnel would require Canadian government approval under the International Bridges and Tunnels Act, said Mark Butler, spokesman for Transport Canada.

“To date, we have not received an application for approval under the International Bridges and Tunnels Act, nor has there been any formal request for funding,” Butler said.

Cree indicated a tunnel boring machine will be ordered next summer. He estimates the boring machine will take a year to build, with project construction to take about two years. That would put the opening for a new rail tunnel sometime in 2017, he said.

Project officials have estimated the rail tunnel project would create between 1,700 to 2,200 direct or indirect jobs during construction.

A CP Rail official Monday referred questions to directors of the rail tunnel project.

“They have the latest information,” said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg.

The new rail tunnel will modernize Windsor’s border infrastructure and should lead to more trade-related jobs in the region, Byington said.

“It’s a very exciting thing for Windsor and Detroit, but also Ontario and Michigan,” she said. “This area is the largest trading mega region. We have to really take the things we have — such as bridges, rail and airports — and really build on that. These infrastructure pieces need to be built.”