- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

DETROIT - Traffic on the Ambassador Bridge here slowed to a near standstill just hours after the September 11 attacks, as law-enforcement authorities in the United States and Canada sought to secure the busiest port of entry in North America.

Spanning more than two miles of the Detroit River to connect the Motor City with Windsor, Canada, more than 9,000 trucks crammed with a variety of goods and driven by an international lineup of truckers cross this hulking, 74-year-old bridge daily, carrying about a quarter of the $500 billion in goods brought each year from Canada to the United States.

The attacks had slowed the flood of trucks and cargo on this four-lane structure to a mere trickle, with delays of up to 17 hours. Trucks were backed up 20 miles into Canada while inspectors — operating under Code Red — checked every vehicle and talked with every driver.

One of those drivers that day was Dalton Jones of Toronto, Ontario, who said U.S. Customs inspectors checked his documents and cargo of machine parts “very carefully” before waving him through. He described the scene as being like a “war zone.”

“It was surreal and very scary,” said Mr. Jones, who has been crossing the Ambassador Bridge regularly for the past dozen years. “They were taking no chances, looking at everything and then checking it again. Because a lot of lives were lost that day, I don’t blame them.”

The Ambassador Bridge and the nearby Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, as well as the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Mich., about 60 miles northeast of here, handle about a third of all the trade crossing each day from Canada into this country.

That poses a significant challenge for the Department of Homeland Security’s new bureaus of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are seeking a balance between the free flow of trade over an open border and a security network that prevents terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal aliens from gaining entry to the United States.

“Someone, somewhere figured out we had to work smarter to be more effective in controlling this border,” said Michael “Mick” Hodzen, who leads the ICE office of investigations here. “Now, we’re all together under Homeland Security with the single goal of protecting the border. We certainly are getting a bigger bang for the buck.”

The new enforcement strategy was outlined first in a 30-point plan signed by the United States and Canada just three months after the terrorist attacks. It calls for the secure flow of people and goods, increased security at the ports of entry, and information sharing and coordination.

“I feel very good about our chances of preventing terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, illegal aliens and drug smugglers from entering the country,” said Angela Ryan, CBP port director in Detroit. “Working together, I believe we can make a difference.”

Mrs. Ryan said manpower increases and technology upgrades at the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and Blue Water Bridge since September 11 have given CBP an opportunity to “level the playing field.”

At the height of the bridge delays, Kevin Weeks, CBP director of field operations here, met with numerous area business owners to discuss the flow of trade between the United States and Canada. Several businesses, large and small, as well as their employees, were in jeopardy of losing billions in income.

By November 2001, working with Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, who later would take over the CBP, Mr. Weeks and Mrs. Ryan had in place a series of programs and strategies designed to allow trade over the border while seeking to keep out terrorists and their weapons, as well as drug and alien smugglers.

“We were constantly asking the managers here to revisit the process, to tell us what lessons they had learned and how to improve the operation so we could move the very large volume of traffic that uses the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Blue Water Bridge more rapidly,” Mr. Weeks said.

“I learned quickly there is one face, one team on this border, constantly re-evaluating itself, setting priorities and coming up with solutions,” he said.

Today, wait times at the Ambassador Bridge average about 10 minutes.

But it was that re-evaluation process begun by Mr. Weeks and Mrs. Ryan that eventually extended to the White House and Congress, awakened by the vulnerabilities exposed by September 11. Prodded by Mr. Bonner, they sought to fund manpower increases and technology upgrades for the long-ignored northern border.

“We’ve hired a lot of new people and brought in a lot of new equipment,” said CBP Supervisor Bruce Farmer, a 28-year veteran who walks the Ambassador Bridge every day to check with his inspectors. “Right now, we’re taking baby steps to make sure it all works, but I can assure you we are here to protect America. That’s our job, and we’re going to do it.”

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