Canadian crossing

The complexities of an international infrastructure project require careful planning


Considered the largest bi-national border infrastructure project on the U.S. and Canada border, the Gordie Howe International Bridge project has yet to see any actual bridge construction despite an agreement being signed in 2012. However, plenty of work, including metalwork, has gone in to preparing for the construction of the bridge, which will connect Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River.

For the non-hockey aficionado, Gordie Howe was a legendary Canadian-born hockey player who played for 26 seasons in the National Hockey League. He spent his first 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and earned the nickname Mr. Hockey. Given Detroit’s attachment to this hockey great, it makes sense that the bridge that extends into Howe’s homeland will take his name.


Six lanes of improvement

Mark Butler, spokesperson for the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA), says there are four international crossings connecting Detroit to Windsor, which includes a barge for oversized goods and dangerous materials; a rail tunnel for commercial (non-passenger) rail traffic; a commuter tunnel for passenger vehicles; and the Ambassador Bridge, which is for passenger and commercial traffic.

“It’s the busiest commercial border crossing between Canada and the United States,” Butler says. “About 25 percent of all commercial bilateral trade travels between Windsor and Detroit.”

The addition of the Gordie Howe Bridge, which will be suitable for commercial and passenger traffic as well as pedestrians and cyclists, will be a welcomed addition to this busy corridor.

The WDBA website says that the construction of the bridge will “spur economic activity in Ontario and Michigan,” and that the bridge will help “accelerate the flow of goods and services and provide a much-needed crossing alternative.”

The work has mostly been on the Canadian side as our neighbor to the north has already acquired all of the needed land (around 130 acres). Conversely, the United States is still in the land acquisition process. A procurement process will determine who is going to be the public/private partner.


A crane hoists a caisson liner in preparation for site work.

“We’re preparing both the U.S. and Canadian ports of entry so we can hand over a ready site to the public/private partner,” Butler says.

The grading and fill work has been completed on the Canadian side as well as extensive work on transmission distribution and utility relocating. Site investigation and some utility relocation are occurring on the American side.

“We are executing on the design for preparatory activities on both sides of the border,” Butler says. “The design for the actual bridge and the plaza has not been finalized.”

While the design of the bridge is still in question, it will have the following dimensions:

  • Six lanes – three Canadian-bound, three U.S.-bound

  • 1.5 miles long

  • Clear span of 0.53 miles with no piers in the water

  • Cable-stayed and suspension are the two bridge design types being considered

  • Dedicated multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists


A drill socket is attached to an excavator and bores out the earth from inside the caisson. The caisson will be filled with grout to complete the foundation.

Prepping for the span

A majority of the metalwork thus far has been in the construction of 23 caissons on the Canadian side, which included welding two 50-ft.-long sections of caisson liners made from 300W steel.

Around 2.7 miles of new high-pressure natural gas pipeline has also been installed to deliver natural gas to two local power generation stations. The gas is used to generate electricity for the provincial energy grid.

Another big undertaking was the utility relocation of transmission lines and towers. For the project, the contractors on the Canadian side are taking down 12 large transmission towers, installing three new ones and running the power lines underground that would typically be overhead.

“We can’t have overhead wires over a port of entry or the inspection plaza,” Butler explains. “It can’t interfere with the bridge. They had to be removed and then relocated underground.”

A total of 40 laborers and operators have been employed on the underground utility project. Thirty electricians and linemen were brought in for the initial work as well.


Welders worked on 2.7 miles of high-pressure gas lines, which were installed at the Canadian port of entry.

International complexities

Butler says that building a bridge is difficult enough, but building two plazas on both sides of the border, constructing highway extensions and four new interchanges, and coordinating all of that between two countries makes it a highly complex project.

“It’s not just ripping out scrub land and putting down asphalt,” Butler notes. “It’s things like electrical work, transmission work, building a municipal drain and storm water management systems – all that stuff that adds to the complexity of the project.”

Presidential Permits are required on the U.S. side. Environmental clearances must be obtained, as well, including:

  • Identify possible adverse environmental effects

  • Propose measures to mitigate adverse environmental effects

  • Predict any adverse effects after mitigation measures are implemented

  • Develop a follow up program to verify the accuracy of the environmental study and the effectiveness of the mitigation measures


“A myriad amount of federal, provincial, state and municipal approvals have to be sought,” Butler says. “It’s also working with jurisdictions on both sides – U.S. Homeland Security and Canada Border Services Agency – they do the same function on both sides, but they have different requirements for their ports of entry and standard operating procedures.”

To complicate things further, Canadians use the metric system. They also have signage in English and French. Each country has different sets of requirements for workers; when building across an international border, “you have to have to consider which workers can work on both sides of the border,” Butler says. “So there is a huge amount of technical considerations and policies you’re looking at in an international project.”

Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority

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