On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Heather Grondin, vice president of corporate affairs and external relations at the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (WDBA), which is overseeing the building of the Gordie Howe International Bridge (GHIB).
She talks about the progress made on the bridge in 2022, the busiest so far for construction. A WDBA video released in December offered year-in-review highlights.
In addition to facing the traditional challenges of any large infrastructure project, the worldwide pandemic also affected the project, though work continued with safeguards for the health of the workers.
Grondin explains that among other milestones in 2023, the towers on each side of the border will reach their full height - more than 700 feet, very close to the height of the tallest building at the Renaissance Center along the Detroit riverfront.
Soon, workers will begin connecting the first cables from the towers to the bridge and road deck. Also in 2023, work will begin on the main span over the Detroit River, which will be accomplished without any work in the river.
Other ongoing developments include:
Grondin also highlights the sustainability components of the project, which are receiving international recognition. She also explained the varied community-benefit programs that are helping neighbors of the bridge with home improvements and offering funding for some 20 non-for-profits supporting local communities in the Delray neighborhood of Detroit and the Sandwich neighborhood in Windsor.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. A lot has been going on the past few years at the Gordie Howe International Bridge giant span that will link our state with the country of Canada. And the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority is the public body charged with overseeing the firm of Bridging North America. That's actually the consortium building to the bridge. So, I've wanted for a while to do another update. It's been some time. And today, I'm really pleased to have with me Heather Grondin, who is vice president of corporate affairs and external relations for the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority. And she's going to tell us about all the things that happened in 2022, by far the busiest construction year yet, and even more things planned for 2023. So, Heather, thank you for taking time to be here.
Heather Grondin: Thank you, Jeff. It's my pleasure.
Cranson: So, let's start a little bit first before we get into the nuts and bolts of the bridge. With your background, what did you do before joining the WDBA and how did you transition from your previous career into this?
Grondin: I've been working for Canadian or Ontario provincial government for the entirety of my career. When it comes to the Gordie Howe International Bridge project, I've been working on this project for actually over 17 years, which when I tell people that they're usually pretty surprised. Not that I've been working on it for 17 years, but that we that work has been going into this project for that long. I always like to remind people that the very first conversations about this project actually started in the year 2000. So we’re 22 years in, and I myself have 17 years in, I was working with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation on the environmental study for this project, back when it was the Detroit River International Crossing, and I worked on the entirety of the study and of course as many Michigan listeners will know that was a binational study and it was certainly the biggest binational environmental study undertaken at the time, and I had the pleasure of managing the communications on the Canadian side for that part of the study. I then worked on the Highway 401 extension that leads directly into the Canadian port of entry into the Gordie Howe International Bridge. And I was able to contribute to the communications and the community outreach on that aspect of the project. And then in 2015, I was able to transition into the Detroit Bridge Authority and has had my current role since. Then so I'm going to be one of the few people who's had the opportunity to work on this project from the planning period, during the procurement, during the design period, Through the construction. And then in a few short years in the operations.
Cranson: Well, that's pretty cool. I guess I didn't know all of that. Background if the If this bridge turns out anything like the Herb Gray Parkway, I think we've got a lot to look forward to.
Grondin: I agree. I agree with that, and I think it's well on its way. I was talking with an individual right before the holidays and they asked which project, which project do you like better, the Herb Gray Parkway or the Gordie Howe International Bridge. And they are both very unique experiences. And I said I couldn't choose. I love both of the projects, but they're very different experiences. But I have the good pleasure of having the opportunity to talk with the community members and with stakeholders and really getting to see that angle of the construction of a project, which I think is unique and is the part that I like the best.
Cranson: So, what have you found? Obviously, there are challenges building any big piece of infrastructure and it's even more so when you're doing it in concert with a whole other country. Besides the fact that we talk funny, we found to be interesting on working with this with the state of Michigan.,
Grondin: I think they we all have the same goal. We all want to see this bridge being built and the focus is always why are we doing this bridge is for the improvement and the effective and efficient movement of goods and trade through this key trade corridor. But is what has really come out through all the years and through all the discussions is seeing this bridge as not necessarily a nation builder, although it is that, but the connector between two nations. And I don't mean the physical connector, I mean more like the social and the psychological connection between the two countries. And that hasn't necessarily brought on challenges, but it has given us a very high standard that we need to achieve and need to reach for. It's looking past this as a piece of transportation and more like what it can do and what it means to the people who are contributing to the project and to the people who are living next door to the project. So again, that's not so much a challenge, but it does set the expectations or the bar very high for us to achieve.
Cranson: and it has created opportunities for cultural education and assimilation, for sure.
Grondin: Yeah, definitely.
Cranson: So, talk a little bit about the. Challenges now, I mean progress is visual as can be. If you drag down on either side of the border anywhere near the footprint, you're going to see those towers that are going to see what's going on. The CEO who's been in place for about four years has moved on and you're dealing with that now. But that's right there along with the other things you have to deal with and building this giant piece of infrastructure in the midst of a 100-year international pandemic. How do you feel like with all those things going on about where things that are?
Grondin: We're in a very good state. So, you'd mentioned earlier 2022 really has kicked off and is part of our busiest construction season. So, we started construction in 2018 and 2022 really saw the team working the most hours. And starting to do the most complex aspects of the construction of the project and that's just continuing into 2023. So still active across all four of our sites and really doing most complex work that you've seen today on the project. And yes, the pandemic, now we get lots of questions about the pandemic. How has it impacted the project and a couple notes on that number one, Bridging North America, our private sector partner put in very. Good safety precautions, health and safety precautions across the construction sites and as a result of that the pandemic didn't stop constructive construction every single day. However, they have to make changes or construction sequencing and some days there were more insight than other days. So, we are still evaluating what that overall impact. In terms of our CEO, our CEO has recently resigned. The Government of Canada got to work quick, and they have the notice of opportunity, which is the required process for filling the CEO and the Canadian Crown Corporation. So that process is underway, and we'll be able to move forward in the interim as that search for the new CEO is ongoing.
Cranson: So, in the coming year we're going to see another a number of milestones reached starting with construction over the main span of the river, which is a huge deal, but the towers are also slated to reach their full height, which is basically the height of the Renaissance Center. I still marvel at the thought of that, but I think the reason, without getting too technical, that the reason that the towers have to be the height they are because this will be the largest cable stayed span in the country or in.
Grondin: Yeah, North America.
Cranson: North America, yeah. And that's just yeah, OK explain that.
Grondin: Yeah, that's exactly right. So, when the towers are complete, they'll be about 722 feet. So that's equivalent in height to the center tower at the GM Renaissance Center. They're currently standing. The US tower is at 560 feet, so we're getting very close to that ultimate height this year 2023, we expect to hit that ultimate height, so the final height will be reached. And I do think that tower construction and that process to get the tower so that height that they're at now has really helped people realize that this project is moving full steam ahead. And to your point, yeah, the height is really a result of the cable stay design that's being used for this bridge. Cable stayed designs are used much more frequently now for bridges of various lengths, but the length of the Gordie Howe International Bridge for sure, and it does have that very distinctive and elegant look, that I think is going to become very iconic and associated with the Detroit Windsor skyline.
Cranson: Yeah, it's esthetically really pleasing, really beautiful. And not to take anything away from our signature bridge to Mackinac which is a suspension bridge obviously but when you see the renderings of this and you see others cable stay bridges, I think the closest one is probably on I-280 in Toledo. A number of people might drive over that. It really is beautiful, but it has practical implications too, right? There's a reason to build it that way.
Grondin: Yeah, there is. It's one of the key decisions made with the Gordie Howe International Bridge was to put the peers on land as opposed to putting the peers in the water. And this decision was made for a number of reasons, environmental considerations. Recognizing the environmental aspects of the Detroit River, but also recognizing that the Detroit River is a key commercial navigation portal, and we don't want to disrupt the flow of the marine traffic down the Detroit River as well. So having the peers on land created the opportunity to need a very long span. Our main span is about half a mile or 853 meters as we would say in Canada. And so that design or that length of the main span really lent itself well to a cable stay design.
Cranson: Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.
MDOT Message: Did you know that most work zone crashes are caused by inattentive motorists? It only takes a split second of distraction to dramatically change lives forever. The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you to slow down, follow all signs, and pay attention when driving through work zones because all employees deserve a safe place to work. Work zone safety. We're all in this together.
Cranson: So, let's talk a little bit about when you talked about staying out of the river and getting the necessary permits from the Coast Guard and others to do that. The environmental impact has been a huge consideration throughout the design of this project. You talked about the earliest days back at the beginning of this Millennium talking about that. Sustainability is, is at the top of mind for everybody involved in this and just kind of informing decisions and conversations all the way across the board. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Grondin: Yeah. So actually, I had a very unique opportunity which was to speak about this project at an international conference in Ireland and I spoke about the sustainability aspects of the project and I spoke along with people representing projects all over Europe and this project went shoulder to shoulder with any other project that was being spoken to. The environmental aspects, the sustainability aspects, how we're looking to design this bridge in a manner that contributes to a cleaner environment, how we're looking to protect environment and communities from climate change mechanisms that are being put in place to reserve resources. All of those aspects of sustainability and then layering on top of that, the work that we're doing with the community and specifically through our community benefits plan really sets this project ahead when it comes to sustainability and achieving some of those sustainability goals that you hear the United Nations speak about. It was a real honor for me to speak about this project in the international forum and the reaction was very positive from others in the industry really recognizing what's being done with this bridge and how it sets it apart.
Cranson: So, could you talk about a few of those specifics what had them mesmerized?
Grondin: Sure. So, we talked about the design of the bridge and the materials being used for this bridge is giving you a durability that will last 125 years and that's great from a sustainability perspective because that means that we won't need to rebuild it. The inclusion of things like the multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists. And as a reminder, when the bridge is open that path will be toll free for those pedestrians and cyclists. So really thinking about how we can, it's not just about commercial or passenger vehicles but also pedestrians and cyclists can have the opportunity to traverse over the Detroit River
Cranson: And also link to other non-motorized. Connections on both sides of the bridge, right?
Grondin: That's exactly right. We've been working with the cities of Detroit and the City of Windsor. I'm looking at the existing trail networks so that you'll have a place to start from and a place to go to. And it really turns this into time into an ecotourism opportunity. I was able to talk a lot about our landscaping and how we're using naturalized and native landscaping and plantings to support the Carolinian landscape that's adjacent to the project site, and even things like the inclusion of a peregrine Falcon box that we're including on the bridge. So, these are aspects of the sustainability. That the people really responded well to.
Cranson: That's excellent. We've worked with the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan to do some of those peregrine boxes at various structures, and it's it works out really well. And it makes for some really cool photos, too.
Grondin: Yeah, for sure. And what? We're lucky to have them here with peregrine Falcons aren't, they're not everywhere. So, we do have to take steps to protect them and draw attention to them. And this is going to be a great way to do that.
Cranson: Oh, it's beautiful to watch them fly. That's awesome. So, among the other things that this this bridge is, it was part of the plan and you've done everything to honor from the start and it's really hard. Work. And I got to give a huge shout out to Stephanie Campo on your team who has led this effort. But talk about the community benefits and what has already been done and what's coming.
Grondin: Yeah, great. Thank you. Thank you and thank you to Stephanie. So, this project includes a community benefits plan and very unique. Again, I don't think you see many Bi-National Community Benefits Plans, definitely one that we have here on this project and is the result of input and time spent by the trees both in Southwest Detroit and Delray on the US side. And Windsor Sandwich on the Canadian side, we were able to announce our community benefits plan in June of 2019 and that was after about four years of consultation and engagement. It includes initiatives under a workforce development strategy, which is really all about creating opportunities. For local businesses and local individuals to contribute to the project. And then we have a second component which is our neighborhood infrastructure strategy, which is a $20 million total investment into the communities immediately adjacent to the project. In terms of workforce, the project team continues to exceed their goal of having at least 20% of the workforce contributing to the project being local and by local we define that as Detroit on the US side and then on the Windsor Essex we've had over 300 apprentices or pre apprentices working on the project. And importantly, we've had over 230 local businesses, again local to Detroit or to Windsor Essex provide either goods or services and we've also had a great opportunity to partner with local secondary post-secondary institutions. And I've had over 250 Co-op students contribute or work in some way either to the project or directly with Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority or Bridging North America. So even from the workforce side, some great stats there on the neighborhood infrastructure strategy. You have huge a few items that may be of key interest is our Delray home improvement program, which is all about providing some improvements to the homes and to residents again who live most closely to the bridge and the US port of entry itself. We've had over 60 homeowners go through the program. And are either have or in the process of receiving the roof repair or window replacement or new HVAC systems. We've also given to over 20 not-for-profit organizations that are located or serving Delray or Southwest Detroit or the equivalent on the Canadian side. And been able to give money or funding to those organizations to support improvements to their facilities or to support their programming or fun specific events. So, a lot of good work being done on the community benefits front and you're going back to what I said a little bit earlier. Those are the efforts that have helped us achieve a little bit more about this project and recognizing, yes, transportation is key. It's why we're here. But we can do more, and we have been doing more to really connect the communities through this project.
Cranson: Yeah, the outreach and the transparency and communications, I know at least on the Detroit side, the people with those often-underserved neighborhoods have been very impressive. Right to the point that some of those community leaders were in tears at some of the community benefits announcements. And I just think that's a real tribute to your folks and everything they've done to stay in touch with those people and help them understand everything that's going on. And I'll provide links in the show notes to a lot of the cool things that WDBA has done. With videos of the of the project footprint, the year in review of the flyovers and some nice photos of the co-ops that you've just mentioned and that program. What else in the last couple of minutes would you want people to know about the project and where it's going?
Grondin: Yeah, well, I definitely encourage people. Thank you for giving the shout out and providing the links to our social media and our website. I definitely encourage people to keep tracking and keeping watch on those links, this is going to be a really exciting year for us. So, 2023 people are going to see a lot of work. As we've talked about, we expect that the towers are going to reach their full height. You're going to start seeing the main span being constructed over the Detroit River, which will also be exciting to see. And very soon people are going to see the very first cables connected from the bridge towers to the main span. And all of this is going to you're really going to start seeing that shape of the cable stay bridge coming, coming into focus with the work that people are going to see in 2023. I guess my bottom line is watch this on social media stay tuned and you'll see lots of great work this year.
Cranson: Ya very soon I mean, we're recording here on January 11th so, very soon. Talk a little bit about that process and why that will be so visual, actually, putting up those cable streams.
Grondin: yeah. So, the key aspect in the construction of the tower. So many people will see the main towers out there. They see the connection that's we've gone from the two separate legs on each tower that have now connected into the main pylon that's building its way up. On top of that main pylon is what's being placed is called anchor boxes, and those anchor boxes are going to house the cables that make the cables that make the cable stay bridge. What people are going to see very soon is the first cable connecting from those tower boxes at the very top of the tower. Down to the span that's on the land side of the tower and then subsequently on the water side. It's really important that we're doing that work now because the approach that's being taken to for the entirety of the bridge is what's called an unbalanced cantilever approach. And so that means we have to build the backside first and then create a create some balance with how the cables are being installed. The construction team will be bringing the main span deck pieces from the back of the bridge, so over the land portion and then placing them over the water and ultimately meeting in the middle. So, the placement of the cables now is important to that overall bridge construction approach. I do want to note with that because of this construction approach that's being taken, this unbalanced cantilever approach which brings the pieces from the land over the water, we will not have to do construction from the water itself from the Detroit River, so we won't be lifting pieces of the bridge deck from the water. And again, that's working to limit the impact to our marine partners.
Cranson: Yeah, it helps with navigability, but it also has an environmental positive effect, too.
Cranson: Good all the way around. Thank you. Yeah, there, this was a very informative and I look forward in the coming months to maybe doing an update again and continuing to work with you and your team.
Grondin: Be happy to come back anytime Jeff.
Cranson: I hope you enjoyed this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. You can find show notes and more information at either the Buzzsprout site or on Apple Podcast. I also want to thank the people who work on this podcast and make it as good as it can be each week. Chiefly Randy Debler who does the audio editing. Also, Jacke Salinas, who puts the transcript together, Jesse Ball, who proofreads the show notes, and Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast on the various platforms.