For Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, 2021 Will Not Be A Record Year, Again

This year is shaping up to be a better year than 2020 for exports and imports crossing the No. 7-ranked Detroit Ambassador Bridge, but that’s not saying much, of course.

While six of the nation’s top 10 U.S. airports, seaports and border crossings will likely set records for total trade this year, with another two on the cusp, the No. 7-ranked Detroit bridge will not come close.

That record was set in 2014, at $150.64 billion.

At the current pace, the value of trade crossing the privately owned bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario will likely be about $137 billion. That is potentially the lowest total since 2010.

This is the seventh in a series of columns I am writing focused on the nation’s top “ports” — airports, seaports and border crossings — and how they are faring compared not only to last year, in the midst of the pandemic, but previous, more normal years.

These columns will include a look at top trade partners, top exports and top imports for each — and some of the factors influencing the results.

In addition to the Detroit bridge, I will include the top-ranked Port of Los AngelesChicago’s O’Hare International AirportPort Laredo in Texas, New York’s JFK International, the Port of Newark, the Port of Houston, the Port of New Orleans, Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Savannah.

So far in 2021, Detroit’s trade is up 20.8% through June, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, which I have analyzed. That’s slightly below the national average of 23.64%.

But trade over the Ambassador Bridge is down 6.98% from the same six-month stretch of 2019, compared to a national increase of 5.86%. It’s more pronounced going back a decade. Ambassador Bridge trade is up 0.79% while the nation’s trade has increased 21.39%.

Fifteen years ago, not too many years after the announcement of a new passenger and commercial bridge for Detroit and Windsor to ease congestion, the crossing was the nation’s second most important port, trailing only the Port of Los Angeles.

But the world didn’t wait for the construction of what would come to be known as the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

2006 would be the last year that Detroit ranked second, passed the next year by New York’s JFK International Airport.

The following year, it was the Port of Newark.

The year after that, in 2008, it was the Port of Houston — the other other top 10 port that clearly will not break a trade record this year — and Chicago’s O’Hare International.

In 2009 and 2010, Port Laredo came within a whisker of surpassing the Ambassador Bridge, finally doing so in 2011 on its eventual march to a No 3 rank.

If the world had waited, it would still be waiting. The six-lane Gordie Howe Bridge is today set for completion in 2024, after nearly two decades of dreaming, study, engineering, staving off legal and lobbying challenges from the family that owns the Ambassador Bridge, and financial issues that arose when Michigan failed to support jointly funding the new bridge.

In the meantime, much has changed about global trade. And nowhere is that more clear than in the world of automotive manufacturing, the industry that had made Detroit the world’s entrepreneurial and economic marvel in its heyday.

In 2001, about the time serious plans for a new Detroit-area bridge was coming to fruition, Mexico was added to the existing U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, creating the North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

That created an enormous competitor to the automotive industry centered around Detroit, Port Laredo and what would eventually be its 14-lane World Trade Bridge. A decade later, China was granted admission to the World Trade Organization.

While for decades Detroit had been dealing with foreign competition for cars from Japan and to a lesser extent Germany, it was now facing a threat for automotive parts from Mexico and China. More recently, that competition has come to include cars from South Korea and foreign manufacturers building cars across the U.S. south.

Today, we can add the computer chip shortage to the woes besetting the area.

And yet, Detroit and the Ambassador Bridge remain critical to the nation’s automotive industry, if not as dominant.

It still ranks first nationally, ahead of Laredo, Los Angeles and the other 450-plus airports, seaports and border crossings, for exports of seats, speedometers and tachometers, vehicle audio systems, transmission shafts, windshield wipers, transmission belts, commercial vehicles and motor vehicle engines.

It still ranks first nationally for some automotive-related imports as well. Some types of steel, aluminum bars and rods, and casting machinery.

But it is not the leader it once was in automotive exports and imports, from the vehicles themselves to the major motor vehicle parts categories.

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