US-Canada truck traffic up strongly but meaning disputed

June 15, 2010

Truck traffic at US-Canada toll bridges continues to be way up on last year. May truck traffic this year was 574k v 480k in May last year, a rise of 19.7%. Year-to-date numbers are not that much behind 2.77m v 2.39m Jan-May 2009, a 15.6% increase. These are monthly data compiled by the Public Border Operators Association and cover eleven toll crossings Ontario to Michigan and New York state. But what does it mean?

Obviously revenues are up in healthy fashion because it is trucks that pay the big bucks. A tractor-trailer typically pays $22.50/crossing at the Ambassador Bridge compared to a passenger car's $5.50. Car traffic still lags last year at the aggregate of the crossings (10.44m v 10.60m last year Jan-May), so overall traffic numbers are up a weak 1.7%.

The Ambassador Bridge truck recovery is extraordinary 229k this May v 174k May 2009, a 32% increase. Year-to-date numbers are up 24%, 1.1m v 0.89m. Even car traffic is up somewhat at the Ambassador and total traffic is up a strong 16.2% for May, 12.6% year-to-date.

Usually operators tout strong traffic numbers as good news, but in Detroit the longrunning political battles over the proposed DRIC bridge downriver 2 miles from the Ambassador over-rides that. The stronger the traffic on the Ambassador the more this will be seen as justification for the DRIC.

Dan Stamper the Ambassador Bridge president makes the point today that their traffic is coming from a deep low: "All of Chrysler's assembly plants were closed in May 2009 because of its bankruptcy filing, while nine General Motors and Ford plants were down. Those plant closures had a ripple effect on suppliers. That explains why our May truck traffic was up 40 percent compared with last year, but down 12 percent from 2008."

Truck traffic at 1.10m this May looks good compared to 0.89m in May last year, but it is still lower than 2008 (1.29m) and much lower than 2000 truck traffic (1.53m).

Stamper again: "The good news is traffic is better than 2009, but the trend through five months has us on a pace for our second-worst year since 2000. Even if traffic doubles over the next 20 years, we would just be getting back to the business we had in 1999."

They put out the nearby tables today.

Meanwhile P3 authorizing legislation for the DRIC Bridge is stalled.

It passed in the state lower house and has voluble support from the Granholm Administration and the local media who portray 83 year old Ambassador Bridge owner Manny Moroun as the devil incarnate. (He's just a regular bad old boy that the law courts can handle - editor.)

But potential P3 investors have given little support to the view that tolls could support the DRIC bridge, so there is concern in the state Senate it could end up as another heavy drain on state taxpayers, or generate a damaging debt default.

New bridge deck

The Ambassador Bridge company meanwhile has announced a $20m+ deck replacement contract will begin to require lane closures from July on.

Matthew Moroun, bridge VP used the occasion to have a shot at Michigan DOT: "This project is a real plus for Detroit. Yet, the MDOT propaganda machine behind the taxpayer-supported DRIC will stop at nothing to spin this into a negative. It's really unfortunate when someone belittles a private investment of this magnitude that creates this many jobs."

The bridge has an ongoing legal battle with MDOT over charges by MDOT that it has breached contract commitments on the I-75 interchange and border plaza Gateway project. The bridge company is steadily exhausting appeals of court orders for demolition work.

The bridge company wants to build a modern parallel cable stayed bridge of 6 lanes - the 80 year old suspension span  is 4 tight lanes - but faces opposition from governments on both sides of the border.

Stalemate prevails as usual in Detroit - no news there.

TOLLROADSnews 2010-06-15

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