It might be one of the only times you’ll see brand new construction equipment with not a smudge of dirt on them at a construction site.
But a dozen or so vehicles were on hand outside the VIP tent when dignitaries, including Canada’s infrastructure minister and the United States ambassador to Canada, took part in the groundbreaking for advance works on the Detroit side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project July 17.
The groundbreaking was a long time coming, especially in Detroit, where the Port of Entry – which will house customs inspection facilities – lags far behind Windsor when it comes to early construction work for the 2.5 kilometre bridge.
But it was also a further indication that major construction of the much-delayed bridge is finally getting underway. On July 5, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA), the federal crown agency overseeing the project, announced the preferred proponent to undertake construction, Bridging North America, led by ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc.
The reason for the Michigan delay was largely because of the difficulty acquiring land in a densely populated residential and industrial older working-class neighbourhood, Delray.
But as of July, 95 per cent of all properties had been obtained and 255 buildings demolished on the 66-hectare footprint at a cost of $150 million.
“These activities represent the first work in the United States dedicated to bridge construction,” Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s infrastructure and communities minister told the huge gathering of media, politicians, government staff and industry representatives.
Canada, in an agreement with Michigan, is paying the upfront cost of the bridge, to be eventually reimbursed for the state’s share of costs through future tolls.
One-quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade crosses the Windsor-Detroit border, or 2.5 million trucks a year. The new bridge, the final value of which has not been determined pending financial close with the preferred proponent in September, could see a 2023 opening.
It will also be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America at 850 metres or just over half a mile between land-based piers.
America’s ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft said the bridge’s name sake is fitting for many reasons, including on the day of groundbreaking.
She said Gordie Howe was not just an iconic hockey player but in his youth “threw concrete” as a labourer on construction projects.
And just like he broke records in hockey the bridge “will break all kinds of records for transport and trade,” she said.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder went out of his way to thank Canada for getting the project off the ground.
He blamed Michigan politics for delaying movement on the project over the past decade.
“Why didn’t it happen sooner? It was a lack of common sense,” he said.
Snyder said Canada has provided the resources to construct the bridge, a public-private partnership, “let’s recognize this and say thank you.”
As many as 12 dignitaries took part in the ceremonial groundbreaking, including Nuria Haltiwanger, chairwoman and CEO of ACS Infrastructure and Iridium Concesiones de Infraestructuras, and Terence Easton, president of Fluor Infrastructure, also a lead consortium member.
Afterwards, Haltiwanger told the Daily Commercial News what’s “extra complex” about the project is “all of the approaches going into the bridge as well as the fact that it’s binational.”
In terms of the technical complexity “this is probably up there as one of the most complex projects that we’ve done,” she said.
That has to do with the span, length, approaches and staging, including making sure the ports of entry on each side of the bridge are done “on time, and on budget.”
Haltiwanger said all the binational agreements to ensure a seamless construction process were worked out ahead of time by the WDBA.
“It’s been a very long effort on their side, I have to say we’re very impressed with the process that they ran in terms of the procurement,” she said.
Bridging North America had been working on the bid for more than two years.
Lee Graham, executive director of Operating Engineers 324, Michigan, pointed to the sparkling new equipment set up onsite – some with factory plastic still on the seats – and said they were displayed in conjunction with the Michigan CAT dealership.
“All the equipment that you see here today that’s going to have the opportunity to build this amazing bridge, they pulled them together just to showcase the industry,” he said. “They’ve got the Visqueen on the seats, so you see this CAT 349 excavator brand new, the latest technology with GPS, everything that co-ordinates with the tolerances of the equipment.”
While the event marked advance work for the Detroit side, major overall work on the bridge project is slated to begin this fall.