DETROIT (Reuters) - An 80-year-old vehicular bridge that handles a fourth of U.S.-Canada trade has needed major repairs, including steps to shore up its main cables and deck, according to a 2007 safety report released on Thursday.
The once-secret report provided the first glimpse into the safety of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, the busiest border crossing in North America. It was made public after a court battle to block its release and amid a debate on both sides of the border on plans to build an alternative span.
The engineering report commissioned by The Detroit International Bridge company, the privately held firm that owns the bridge, concluded that the suspension span was in “fair” condition and safe for vehicle traffic.
The Ambassador, which runs from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, carries 11 million trucks and cars annually. It is a critical link between major automakers and component suppliers in the United States and Canada and ranks as the busiest border crossing in North America.
But some elements, including the concrete and steel in the main span and bridge railings, were in “poor” shape and in need of major repairs, the report said.
The report was released by Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, who has questioned plans by the bridge’s billionaire owner to build a parallel span over the Detroit River.
The safety of aging U.S. bridges has been a focus since the collapse of an interstate spanning the Mississippi River in Minneapolis during bumper-to-bumper traffic in 2007, an accident that killed 13 people.
Michigan officials say the bridge remains safe but has become unable to handle the traffic flow across the border.
“If anything happens to the Ambassador Bridge, then Detroit’s economy shuts down,” said Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Shreck. “When the crossing closed for a half day on September 11, auto plants as far away as Missouri had to close.”
The U.S. transportation system was severely affected that day in 2001 when hijacked jetliners struck targets in New York and Washington.
Federal and regional officials in both the United States and Canada have proposed building a new $3 billion bridge that would be built near the Ambassador Bridge.
The bridge’s owner said repairs had already addressed issues raised by the 2007 annual safety inspection it had fought to keep private.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority and we want to make sure the bridge is open all the time,” said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the bridge operator, on Thursday.
Matty Moroun, 82, a reclusive billionaire who bought the bridge 30 years ago from investor Warren Buffett, had filed a federal lawsuit in an unsuccessful attempt to block Dingell from releasing the 700-page engineering report.
Dingell, who spoke to reporters from his Washington office, stopped short of saying the bridge was unsafe.
“The public has the right to know the condition of the bridge,” said Dingell, who said safety reports for 2008 and 2009 should also be made available by Moroun.
Frame said Dingell’s release of the report had put public safety at risk. “There are people who want to hurt this country and this is a blueprint for terrorists,” he said.
State officials have been given copies of the annual safety reports from Moroun’s company since 2004. They had agreed not to make the reports public.
Dingell obtained a copy of the 2007 report from the Federal Highway Administration.
Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki. Editing by Peter Bohan and Philip Barbara