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The International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie is the only way for vehicles to cross between the Canadian province of Ontario and the state of Michigan within 300 miles. The International Bridge connects the United States and Canada, as well as connecting the two cities on either end of the bridge – Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario with Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (Sault Ste. Marie is pronounced Soo-Saint-Mah-Ree.) A regional railroad that formerly served the area was known as the Soo Line.
The International Bridge at night. (Photo: Michigan Department of Transportation)
The bridge is also a conduit for commerce. On the Canadian side, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is “the largest international trade crossing in northwestern Ontario.” More than $2 billion in Canadian exports are shipped via the crossing to the United States. While most exports cross the bridge by truck, over one-third of the total is carried by rail.
The bridge’s history
Prior to 1962, the only way to cross the St. Mary’s River between the two cities was by car ferry or by a railroad bridge that was built in 1880.
Michigan created the International Bridge Authority (IBA) in 1935, which was approved by Congress as an international crossing in 1940. Fifteen years later, Canada’s Parliament created the St. Mary’s River Bridge Company (SMRBC). It was given rights to construct an international crossing. Finally, in 1960, the SMRBC assigned its construction rights to the IBA.
The International Railroad Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie. (Photo: historicbridges.org)
The cost to build the bridge was $16 million. It was financed by two series of bonds: $8.4 million of Series A bonds were sold to private investors, and were paid off in 1983; $7.85 million of Series B bonds were purchased by the Province of Ontario; they were paid off over time from bridge revenues and retired on September 1, 2000.
The Michigan State Highway Department (now the Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT) built the approach to the bridge on the U.S. side. Of the $4 million cost, federal funds financed 90%, because the approach is part of the Interstate Highway System (I-75).
An aerial view shows the approaches to the International Bridge on the U.S. side. (Photo: International Bridge Authority)
The bridge’s importance to both countries
The “Soo” crossing is near the Trans-Canada Highway. Therefore, it is convenient for goods transported by truck from eastern and northeastern Ontario, as well as the province of Quebec, to the U.S. states that border Michigan and the Great Lakes. The bridge is a key transportation link for the steel, paper and timber industries.
On the U.S. side of the bridge, the crossing connects directly to Interstate 75 as well as Michigan Highway 28, which leads south of Lake Superior into Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The International Bridge also serves the cities on both sides of the border. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario has a population of about 75,000, while Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan has a population of about 15,000. The bridge is important for tourism-related businesses and to the general public for work, recreation and shopping purposes.
Prior to the pandemic about 2 million vehicles crossed the bridge annually. While commercial vehicles are still using the bridge on a regular basis, most other crossings between the two countries have been suspended.
Construction of the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge. (Photo: International Bridge Authority)
As noted above, from concept to construction took 25 years. Construction of the bridge itself only took 25 months. Construction began on September 16, 1960 and the bridge was opened to traffic on October 31, 1962.
The bridge is 1.8 miles long. From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility to the Canadian Customs facility is about 2 miles. The green and ivory bridge weighs 125,000 tons. Of that total, 114,000 tons are concrete and 11,000 tons are structural steel.
Between its curbs, the bridge has a 28-foot roadway, providing 14-foot traffic lanes in each direction. At its highest point, the bridge’s roadway is 145 feet above ground level. Lastly, the bridge has a minimum vertical clearance above low water in the ship canals of 124 feet.
The International Bridge. (Photo: historicbridges.org)
After the International Bridge opened in 1962, the IBA was responsible for operating both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the bridge, under the supervision of MDOT. This arrangement lasted until 2000. For that time period, the IBA had three members from Michigan and two representatives from the SMRBC.
After the Canadian bonds were retired, a new entity was created to manage and operate the bridge. Since then, the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Authority has four members appointed by the Governor of Michigan and four members appointed by the SMRBC. The Authority is responsible for the following: “approving bridge tolls, operating budgets and business plans; making rules for the use of the bridge and related properties; approving property purchases and capital investments; and overseeing the investment of the bridge reserve fund.”
In addition, the Authority has assigned responsibility for operating the bridge to the IBA, which is a separate entity within MDOT. The IBA staff has an equal number of Canadians and Americans. The IBA conducts “day-to-day operations needed to keep the bridge open to traffic 24 hours a day, year-round.” Among those operations are: “toll collection, bridge maintenance and capital improvements.”
In regard to tolls, the cost to cross the bridge for a Class 8 truck is $20 on the U.S. side and C$26 on the Canadian side. Because of the exchange rate that is almost the same amount going either way. The two photos below (from the MDOT) are of the same truck driver and his wife. In the top photo, the driver is paying the toll on the day the bridge opened in 1962. In the color photo, he is paying the toll in 2014 at one of the booths before they were replaced.
The mission statement for those governing and operating the International Bridge is:
“The SSMBA and the IBA are committed to the safe and efficient movement of people and goods across the International Bridge between Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The International Bridge is an asset which must be maintained and preserved to protect the mobility of local, state and provincial residents and to promote U.S. and Canadian trade, tourism and regional economic development.”
A sign shows the logo of the IBA. (Photo: IBA)
This article first appeared on www.freightwaves.com
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