An already booming local construction sector is going to get a lot busier now that the federal government has approved construction of the new Ambassador Bridge, with work slated to begin as early as this year.
The long-sought replacement span for the 90-year-old existing Ambassador — the only bridge linking Windsor and Detroit and the busiest commercial crossing between Canada and the United States — comes at a time when plans are ramping up to build the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, a public-private partnership under government oversight that officials say will get underway late next year.
The Gordie Howe bridge is to be located about three kilometres south of the Ambassador Bridge.
"We've got some properties to clear in Windsor and some utilities to relocate but our hope is to start construction by the end of this year, beginning of next year, and it's about a three-year construction cycle," said Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, of the Ambassador Bridge project.
He said expectations are that the bridge can open by 2020 and claimed the timeline is shorter than the Gordie Howe bridge because his company's is a private development.
"I think as a private company we have opportunities to do things a bit different than a DOT (department of transport) would do them, and to do them in a more efficient and faster way," he stated.
The Ambassador's plans for its new span, which will be six lanes compared to the current four, have been a protracted process that has been mired in litigation, often vocal opposition and piecemeal approvals from authorities on both sides of the border, culminating in the recent Canadian federal approval.
"All the major permits are in hand," Stamper said, noting the process has taken 15 years. "There's a lot of little health and safety issues we'll have to meet but the decision by both countries that this bridge is going forward is already made."
Construction is estimated to cost about $1 billion and Stamper said as many as 4,000 jobs would be created. Some $500 million has already been spent on legal costs, property acquisitions in Windsor and Detroit, engineering and environmental approvals.
The bridge will be cable-stayed owing to issues related to security and life cycle. A condition of the federal approval is that the current bridge, located metres from the new one, will have to be torn down within five years of the new bridge's opening.
Stamper said contractors and labour would be drawn from both sides of the border.
He said "only a few" companies internationally have the expertise to build a cable-stayed bridge, especially tower and cable work, but "a lot of work" can be done by local companies.
"We've got a foot in the U.S. in Detroit and a foot in Canada in Windsor and we want to look for some local companies to do some of this work for us," Stamper said.
He also suggested work such as fabrication and precast would be done onsite.
"We own enough property to be able to do that," he said.
Robert Petroni, business manager for LIUNA Local 625 in Windsor, called the announcement "good news" and suggested the new work on both bridges is "not going to overwhelm" his union.
"We've been recruiting new members for the past six months," he said. "And we've ramped up our apprenticeship program this year to allow for a bigger intake."
The union has already been at full employment, more than 1,700 personnel, for almost a decade and is doing "pull ahead" work, such as the relocation of utilities and onshore roadwork for the Gordie Howe bridge, he added.
More than 30 people are working on the Gordie Howe bridge now and that number will likely reach between 75 and 100, Petroni said.
"We're ready for it and we're going to be able to supply," he said, noting his is only one of several unions that will be working on both projects. Should local staff be exhausted the call will go out to other southern Ontario locals.
A spokesperson for the Windsor Construction Association was unavailable for comment.