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DRTP pursues rail tunnel instead of truck route
Published: November 15, 2007
Source: By Dave Battagello, Windsor Star
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The Detroit River Tunnel Partnership is considering building a $350-million high-clearance tube beside its 100-year-old Windsor rail tunnel, to accommodate today's larger double-stack rail cars.

DRTP officials have been busy in recent weeks meeting with politicians and transportation authorities on both sides of the border to explore the possibility.

"What they presented to me was that they would drop the road component and are pushing for the rail tunnel," said local MP Brian Masse (NDP - Windsor West). "They are doing a financial analysis and proposing rail only."

DRTP's latest move is an indication it may be steering away from controversial plans to introduce a truck route within its rail corridor, which triggered anger among South Windsor residents who live in close proximity. It was a plan that was rejected by both city councillors and the binational team trying to come up with a border solution for Windsor.

Since DRTP's truck plan was eliminated from consideration by a the binational study team, DRTP has turned its focus on rail, DRTP spokeswoman Marge Byington said.

"Right now, we are going ahead with rail and there is no considering trucks," she said. "It's a very exciting project. The best part of the rail tunnel is it seems to have far more people attracted to it than detractors."

DRTP is a joint partnership between CP Railway and Borealis, an arms-length investment company of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), which owns the aging rail tunnel. As it is, the tunnel's too small to handle many of today's massive modern rail freight cars.

CP Railway pays for use of CN Railway's larger rail tunnel in Sarnia, built in the 1990s, to get some of its goods across the border.

The political and business leaders DRTP officials have spoken with to date have been supportive of the new rail tunnel plan, said Byington.

"It is an extremely necessary part of the transportation infrastructure for Windsor-Detroit," she said. "There is a lot of interest, even as far as Washington, because of the need of more rail infrastructure in the U.S."

Once financial analysis is complete, DRTP will work toward launching an environmental assessment for its new rail tunnel, Byington said.

"We have started the analysis and know it can be built. Engineering is sound. We are hoping to start (an EA) before too long."

Masse said he wants to make sure no road or truck routes are included as part of the DRTP plan before lending support.

"What we are doing is looking at the map to see if any neighbourhood conflicts," he said. "Also, to ensure there is no back door to add truck transportation or new highway systems to their plan. That's critical."

Coun. Dave Brister, who represents South Windsor, was once the leader of a neighbourhood group that fought against the DRTP truck plan because of the potential air and noise pollution impacts. He still resides close to the corridor.

He declined an invitation to meet with DRTP over its latest plan, saying Thursday he first wants to secure a government funding commitment to build the new truck feeder highway in Windsor leading to the border, which would eliminate any need for the truck-route component of the DRTP plan.

"DRTP has a history of using the rail issue to mask the larger goal to have a truck route to help fund (with border tolls) the new rail tunnel," Brister said. "I don't see anything different in terms of their end goal.

"Once we have our (border) road network established, by all means I'll be happy to talk to them about rail, but I'm not prepared to do that until that is nailed."

His wardmate Coun. Drew Dilkens did meet with DRTP.

"It was a general discussion of how they are looking to create a new high-stack rail tunnel," he said. "My first question is what happens to the existing tunnel. We don't want to see trucks going through it.

"The answer was passenger rail, but in terms of business case, I'm not sure it's there. If Via and Amtrack had interest they would be running trains through there already.

"Let me be crystal clear. I'm against running vehicles and trucks through the city as DRTP proposed in the past."

DRTP's lobbying for a new rail tunnel has received some early support in Michigan from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Michigan's Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

Kilpatrick called it a "vital international step" in the city's renaissance, while MDOT director Kirk Steudle described a new larger Windsor-Detroit rail tunnel as "a critical addition" to support efficient movement of goods between U.S. and Canada, offering the state's political and technical support to DRTP.

The Windsor border is North America's busiest trade corridor, handling about $500 million daily, including 10,000 trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge.

The city's border traffic expert Sam Schwartz has indicated improved use of railways could take up to 2,000 trucks per day off city streets.

A new rail tunnel also potentially would improve chances of developing a freight and cargo centre at Windsor Airport combining rail, air and highway transfers.

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