Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

Evaluation of Travel Time Methods to Support Mobility Performance Monitoring:
Ambassador Bridge (Page 1 of 5)

Final Site Report

April 2002


Office of Freight Mgt. and Operations
Federal Highway Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Washington, DC 20590


Battelle Memorial Institute

Border Crossing Freight Delay Data Collection and Analysis
FY 2001 Data Collection – Ambassador Bridge

Site Description

The Ambassador Bridge is a large, imposing structure that connects Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario (see figures 1 and 2). The bridge is the single busiest international land border crossing in North America, serving as a portal for 27% of the approximately $400 billion in annual trade between Canada and the U.S. The bridge is 1.6 miles long from tollbooth to primary inspection checkpoint in either direction. The roadway is four lanes whose directional flow is controlled by overhead changeable electronic lane markers, often in combination with cones. The bridge operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It facilitates the movement of many commodities between the U.S. and Canada, with the automotive industry being the most notable.

A detailed area map of the Detroit area with the Ambassador Bridge indicated
Figure 1. Area Map – The Ambassador Bridge.

Both trucks and autos intermingle in the same lanes as they cross, then on the far side they separate into discrete lanes as they approach separate primary checkpoints, in both the U.S. and Canada. After primary inspection, trucks and autos mix as they exit Canadian Customs into Windsor, while trucks that exit U.S. Customs are segregated from autos. The Windsor-Detroit Tunnel is only a short distance away. The tunnel is for autos only, one lane in either direction.

There is a sidewalk on the south side of the bridge only. One lane of the bridge near the middle is typically closed for a long-term bridge cable-painting project. During painting operations, traffic is typically funneled into 3 lanes by cones for about three hundred yards. When the painting is being done on the south side of the span, the sidewalk helps to accommodate equipment and decrease the length of the lane that is cordoned off for painting (see figure 2).

Photo of the Ambassador Bridge showing how the south side of the span can accommodate various equipment, like painting equipment
Figure 2. Maintenance Equipment on Ambassador Bridge.

On the U.S. side, the bridge is located beside I-75 near its intersection with the eastern terminus of I-96. The bridge crosses only two miles south of downtown Detroit. Since space is at a premium as a result of the developed urban/industrial setting, trucks approaching the U.S. side must make an abrupt, tight 180-degree turn to enter primary on the U.S. side. Trucks on the Canadian side have more room for a straightforward approach to primary and, as will be explained, secondary inspection is not located at the same facility. The bridge entrance/exit on the Canadian side is in a less industrial setting next to the campus of the University of Windsor. Truck traffic exits onto Highway 3 (Huron Church Road), which after 5-1/2 miles intersects Highway 401, a major route that heads northeast across Ontario.

The bridge and its collateral facilities are privately owned and operated by the entity known as the Ambassador Bridge. The mission of the Ambassador Bridge is to operate and maintain the bridge and collect tolls on both sides of the crossing. The Ambassador Bridge's U.S. owner is the Detroit International Bridge Company and its Canadian subsidiary is The Canadian Transit Company. Ambassador Bridge owns the facilities that house Canada Customs and Immigration while GSA owns the U.S. Customs facility. Since Ambassador Bridge owns and operates the property that the tollbooths are on, the data collectors who were located by the toll collection booth in either country had to have permission from them, which was verbal.

The U.S. and Canadian Customs mission is to protect their border. They operate the facilities and control the property where their Customs facilities are located. Data collectors who were operating beside the primary Customs checkpoint in either country had to have permission to be on property operated by the Customs organization of that country. Thus on both sides of the crossing, even though that collector was only a very short distance from the collector at the tollbooth, the approval to operate at that spot came from a different organization.

Ambassador Bridge employees included three to four persons assigned to handle traffic on each side. If an accident on the bridge is minor, bridge personnel take pictures quickly and then move the vehicles. While the Ambassador Bridge's needs are clearly different from the needs of the U.S. and Canadian Customs organizations, all parties appear to cooperate effectively with one another. For example, if some unusual event causes sudden and severe backup (which the data collection team observed once in particular), the Customs organizations responded by manning extra booths to help restore normal flow across the border. Also, for example, on the second day (Wednesday) of the second data collection period, a truck ran out of fuel on the bridge heading to Canada around 5:00 P.M. It sat for about an hour restricting traffic until it could be moved. Bridge personnel held up traffic headed to the U.S. so traffic headed for Canada could cross during part of the time that the truck was blocking traffic. But in normal operation, delays introduced by Customs operations have a greater impact on Ambassador Bridge operations than vice-versa. Lines are painted on the road occasionally. A quick-drying plastic compound is used so that traffic holdups are minimal. Ambassador Bridge personnel held up traffic at the IB-2 tollbooth for approximately ten minutes during the first collection.

Data collection activities at the Ambassador Bridge occurred during May 22-24, 2001 and June 19-21, 2001. Truck travel times across the bridge in both directions were recorded on Tuesday through Thursday each week, for approximately 12 hours each day. The times of the data collection were staggered somewhat to obtain a broader picture of activity at the bridge. Anecdotally, Canada Customs is said to have typically four lanes open during a weeknight and three lanes on a weekend, while and U.S. Customs has two to three lanes open during weeknights and one lane during weekends.

Canada-bound Traffic. For trucks heading into Canada, the connecting roadway system leading to the bridge is somewhat complex. The majority of trucks exit off of I-75 northbound and southbound, where they have to proceed along a service road – Fisher Freeway – a short distance to access the bridge. Rush hour traffic can cause this line of trucks (along with autos) to back up onto the right lane of the Interstates, particularly I-75. The trucks on Fisher Freeway that have exited from I-75 southbound have to make a sharp left turn to cross the Porter Street overpass, then turn right to access the bridge entrance at a very busy intersection that has multiple connecting roads. A smaller number of trucks arrive directly at the same intersection by the bridge entrance via a feeder route that connects to the nearby eastern terminus of I-96.

On the other side on the Interstate (the east or bridge side), some trucks and autos that have exited from I-75 northbound onto Fisher Freeway pull into the main duty-free area instead of proceeding the short distance to the bridge entrance. Trucks and autos exit from duty-free via the "west ramp" through two tollbooths which process both autos and trucks, then they make a sharp turn separated by barricades from the main bridge traffic to enter the flow across the bridge. The outbound trucks and autos that pass by the duty-free entrance on Fisher Freeway northbound make a sharp right turn after about two hundred yards onto the bridge at the complex intersection described above.

Some trucks, particularly those that have exited from I-75 southbound or I-96, pull over to the right at the bridge entrance and park to visit a small duty-free store just prior to the car/truck tollbooth entrance on U.S. side. This impromptu parking area was beside one of our data collection stations (see figure 3). Drivers who visit this duty free store walk across often-heavy car and truck traffic to reach the store, and then walk back to their parked trucks a few minutes later to proceed into Canada. Autos tend to pull over in a similar manner on the other side of the flow, next to the duty free store. All vehicles whose drivers have used any duty free store must proceed across the bridge into Canada.

Photo showing drivers parking their vehicles and walking across traffic to visit the duty-free store before entering Canada
Figure 3. Some drivers park their trucks and cross traffic on foot to reach a duty-free store.

The main truck flow across the bridge into Canada proceeds through four truck-only tollbooths in addition to the two truck/car tollbooths on the "west ramp," for a total of six tollbooths used by trucks. There are eight tollbooths reserved for autos that are to the left of, and adjacent, to the four main truck-only booths. Autos and trucks are mixed as they enter the bridge and some have to veer across several lanes of traffic to get to the appropriate tollbooths.

Once across the bridge and in Canada, autos are directed to the left and trucks to the right to pass through one of the primary Customs inspection booths. There is a bank of twenty Canadian primary booths – ten on the left that process autos only, and ten on the right that can process autos or trucks (see figure 4). Canada shifts employees at the primary booths at 5 minutes to the hour – gates come down and hold traffic. Trucks are either released from primary or must continue on to secondary inspection, which could include completing brokerage paperwork or physical inspection of the cargo. An occasional truck is directed to a special covered inspection area adjacent to primary, but most trucks that are directed to secondary inspection proceed onto Huron Church Road, which becomes Highway 3 through Windsor.

Photo of Canadian customs inspection booths on the Windsor side
Figure 4. Primary at Canadian Customs, Windsor side.

A unique feature of Canadian Customs at the Ambassador Bridge is that their secondary inspection is not located at the same facility as primary inspection, but rather is located over a mile and a half from primary inspection off Huron Church Road. Truck drivers who are told at primary that they must go through secondary inspection will proceed to the secondary inspection facility on the honor system (although of course there are stiff penalties for anyone who does not comply). Canada, therefore, permits trucks that require additional inspection or other scrutiny to proceed into the country and onward to the remote secondary inspection site where the issues will be addressed. This is in sharp contrast to the U.S. Customs operations where a truck with brokerage issues is not permitted to leave the Customs compound until all issues are resolved.

The area immediately past Canadian primary (the bank of twenty stalls for both autos and trucks) sometimes becomes extremely congested through a combination of very heavy traffic and the geometry of traffic flow. The exits from primary are directly past where the truck stalls are located; they include three lanes straight onto Huron Church Road outbound (i.e., southbound; Windsor is geographically south of Detroit ) and a curving ramp of two lanes onto Huron Church Road northbound (but this is not the road that crosses the bridge). When exiting from primary, autos have to proceed to the right almost perpendicular to truck flow (see figure 5), especially if the autos intend to exit onto the two-lane ramp for Huron Church Road northbound.

Photo of traffic congestion that occurs after leaving the primary booths
Figure 5. Rare congestion below Canadian Customs booths.

As traffic builds up, the likelihood increases that a car heading for the Huron Church Road outbound exit ramp will cut in front of a truck that is accelerating out of a booth in primary. The data collection team observed a couple of occasions when this area just past the primary booths had filled up so completely that there were about as many vehicles as close together as the area could possibly hold. This occurred because both autos and trucks were leaving the primary booths at a greater rate than they could exit onto the road system. When it reached this point, trucks started to be held at the primary booths.

There is a railroad line that crosses Huron Church Road beside College Avenue, only 200 yards or so past primary and perhaps 400 yards upstream from the tollbooth. During the three days of data collection, trains were observed crossing several times a day, stopping traffic for an average of three to four minutes each time. This was of sufficiently short duration that it did not appear Canadian Customs needed to hold traffic at the tollbooths.

U.S.-bound Traffic. The majority of traffic crossing to the U.S. comes from Huron Church Road/Highway 3, which terminates at the Ambassador Bridge. Just past the intersection of Huron Church Road with College Avenue and the railroad track, signs direct autos to the left and trucks to the right. Immediately past is another split, dividing local traffic and truck traffic crossing the bridge (see figure 6). Trucks wanting to enter the duty free area exit to the left about two hundred yards past the auto-truck split, into the commercial vehicle duty free parking. Trucks exiting the duty free area merge with the main truck traffic about one hundred yards past where they entered duty free, then they proceed to a bank of five truck tollbooths. When leaving duty free, they merge with the traffic flow on the truck side merge with autos after the tollbooths, and cross the bridge.

Photo of truck approaching Canadian tollbooths
Figure 6. Truck inbound to U.S. approaching tollbooths on Canadian side. Data collector can be seen in background.

There is also an entrance ramp coming up from Wyandotte Street West in the vicinity of the University of Windsor campus that enters the bridge approach across from the duty-free store exit. There are two tollbooths processing both trucks and autos on this ramp. The trucks and autos that exit this ramp are retained in the right hand lane by cones and barrels, separated from the main truck flow for about one hundred yards until they pass the line of tollbooths and merge.

Once across the bridge and in the U.S., autos are directed to the left and trucks veer off to the right to pass through one of the primary Customs inspection booths. As mentioned, trucks approaching the U.S. side must work their way into the right lane and make an abrupt, tight 180-degree turn to enter primary on the U.S. side. While the turn is two-lane, its geometry forces trucks to travel single-file. Then the trucks' approach straightens out and they enter a bank of six primary booths (see figure 7).

Photo of primary U.S. customs on the Detroit side
Figure 7. Primary at U.S. Customs, Detroit side.

Trucks released from primary drive straightforward one hundred yards to a traffic light and "T" at the intersection of Fort Street, where they must turn left or right. Trucks requiring physical inspections or who need to visit customs brokers veer off to the right and make a 180 degree turn clockwise around the Customs building and continue into a large truck parking lot that they circled around on their way into primary. When trucks are finally ready to depart that lot, they exit via a designated single lane running through an unmanned booth next to the customs building. The data collectors below primary were instructed to not count any trucks exiting from this lane, since these trucks had induced delay as a result of being in the secondary inspection parking lot. They merge with the trucks that have been cleared by primary inspection and use the same exit onto Fort Street to leave the Customs compound.

Just past primary on the left, before the exit to Fort Street, construction has begun on a future tollbooth plaza. Concrete has been poured for tollbooths that will include truck scales, but construction was interrupted and not in progress at the time of either data collections. Ambassador Bridge intends to relocate the tollbooth operation for U.S.-bound traffic from the Canadian side to the vicinity of primary on the U.S. side.

Office of Operations