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International bridge upgrade overdue

The Sault Ste. Marie Joint International Bridge Authority is looking to Ottawa to pick up the cost of upgrading the antiquated 1960s-era customs plaza on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River.

The Sault Ste. Marie Joint International Bridge Authority is looking to Ottawa to pick up the cost of upgrading the antiquated 1960s-era customs plaza on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River.

A master plan released this summer places a $40-million price tag to re-design the plaza to accommodate vehicle traffic and install more efficient and modern customs inspection facilities.

But bridge manager Phil Becker says the authority is hard-pressed to invest any significant money in the project.

The 4.5-kilometre span is jointly operated by the State of Michigan and the Saint Mary’s River Bridge Company, an arm of the Canadian government.

The authority relies entirely on revenue from truck and automobile traffic for the bridge’s upkeep. Mounting maintenance and operating costs, combined with stagnant traffic levels, have put them in a cash crunch.

“Traffic is half of what it was 10 years ago and we’re totally toll-funded with no operational subsidy from any governmental unit,” says Becker.

It has forced them to put off a preventative maintenance project to re-deck the bridge for 10 to 15 years.

Annual toll revenues are $6 million with $4.5 million poured back into day-to-day operations. With only $5 million in reserves, “we’ve understood that no matter what the (project) cost is, there’s no way bridge revenue will pay for this.”

In a good year, says Becker, the most that can be placed in reserves is $1.5 million. Five out of the last six years have been deficit years and have had to draw from reserves for upkeep to the 46-year-old structure.

A toll hike may be an option when the authority presents its long-range financial forecast this fall.

Becker says the most pressing need is a new Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) inspection facility, which hasn’t changed substantially since the bridge opened in 1962. “They need a new facility today,” emphasized Becker, who has the full support from CBSA.

As the only U.S. point of entry for all of northeastern Ontario, Becker says its remains a key crossing with $2 billion in trade crossing annually.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government invested $18 million into a high-tech security plaza on the Michigan side.

The Sault bridge doesn’t come close to receiving the billions in government infrastructure funding for choked border points like Windsor, Sarnia and Niagara Falls.

For Sault border agents, there’s no truck unloading dock for secondary freight inspection. Customs must escort commercial vehicles to the Purvis Marine dock on the waterfront. “It’s inefficient, but it’s a more secure method,” says Becker.

Under the master plan, the current bridge alignment would remain the same, but the plaza layout would change dramatically by expanding west to tie into the city’s new Carmen’s Way truck route.

Commercial vehicles would enter and exit separately from automobile traffic.

CBSA’s single building would be replaced by two larger ones: one for passenger vehicle processing and immigration services, and another for commercial truck traffic. Seven inspection booths would be in place.

Other structures would store bridge authority equipment and sand. There’s a long-range provision for construction of a combination customs brokers-duty free shop. The start-to-finish construction timelines are estimated at five years.

“It’s a well developed plan and we’re happy with the report we received from the consultant,” says Becker.

The Canadian owners are taking a leadership role in working with the city to develop a funding proposal to take to Ottawa.

Becker says federal officials remain open to further discussions, but there’s no formal funding application being submitted yet.

“We want to move forward with that project as soon as possible, but we can’t move without a funding source.