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$30-million detour: Truckers fear closure of Highway 75 will drive up their costs, your prices

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German immigrant Thomas Tenner marvels at the lack of  solutions to recurring floods that cut off such an economically crucial transport route as Manitoba's Highway 75.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

German immigrant Thomas Tenner marvels at the lack of solutions to recurring floods that cut off such an economically crucial transport route as Manitoba's Highway 75. Photo Store

MORRIS -- Thomas Tenner geared down his Peterbilt semi-trailer, pointed south on Highway 75, and whistled at the waters of the Morris River, which were beginning to swell a few feet below the bridge into town.

"Oh-oh," Tenner said. "You can see the flood coming. Last week, there was nothing here."

Tenner is a long-haul trucker -- bound for Michigan with an 18-wheeler loaded with about 17,000 kilograms of frozen hash browns -- and the threat that Highway 75 might be closed due to flooding, yet again, is a mystifying concern.

It's also simple math.

Every year the bridge just north of Morris is submerged and the highway closed, the detour around the water is about 100 kilometres. That 100 kilometres translates into an extra hour behind the wheel and 35 to 40 litres of gas (about $1.20 per litre for diesel).

"If you have 100 trucks," Tenner said, "you just need a calculator."

Or a thousand trucks. After all, it's estimated that $19 billion in truck trade crossed the Emerson border in 2012. According to the Manitoba Trucking Association, it costs the trucking industry $1.5 million every week 75 is closed. And since 1996, the highway has been shut down on five occasions totalling 142 days.

"We're looking at an estimated $30 million, plus," noted MTA general manager Terry Shaw.

In fact, the Emerson crossing is the fifth most active U.S. port crossing and the most active west of southern Ontario.

"It's vital to the Canadian economy, much less the Manitoba economy," Shaw said. "We've got drivers, we've got trucks, we've got trailers, we've got loads -- on both sides of the border -- that are time-sensitive. That (transportation) can't happen that efficiently if your regular access route is shut down. It makes planning a real nightmare, and that's outside of the added costs.

The extra klicks, extra fuel and extra hours are costs that are, in almost every case, passed on to the consumer.

Yet the last two closures alone, in 2009 (38 days) and 2011 (28 days), account for over two months total. This spring will be touch-and-go. Although earlier predictions almost guaranteed a closure of 75 from the north into Morris, subsequent downgrades will put levels in the 2001 range, when the highway at Morris did not close.

The province confirmed it's possible Highway 75 won't close at all this year. Whether or not any closure will take place will be known next week, when the crest arrives at Emerson.

But the key will be the bridge into Morris, which is usually the first casualty of the crest.

"That's the lynchpin," Shaw said. "That's what the province has to address and hasn't. There's no long-term solution."

The vulnerability of the highway to the river is a foreign concept for a trucker such as Tenner. Perhaps because he was once a foreigner, now 48, who was raised in East Germany in the early 1960s and emigrated to Canada six years ago with a dream: to drive a big North American rig to Florida, the manifestation of watching reruns of Miami Vice back in Germany in the 1980s. "I never forgot Don Johnson," he said.

Today, Tenner lives in the cab of his 386 Peterbilt year-round, with a sleeper complete with a 27-inch TV, microwave and computer. He only spends six nights a month home in Winnipeg, the rest rolling across North America, leaving with hash browns and coming back with car tires. (Fun trucker fact: With purchase of over 100 gallons of fuel at U.S. truck stops, you can shower for free.)

Tenner's dream included living in Canada. "For me, it was an adventure. I saw the big lakes (in a documentary) and wanted to come." In the last six years, Tenner has been to 46 of 48 states (not including Hawaii and Alaska) and coast-to-coast in Canada.

Still, he can't understand why such a crucial route to the U.S. can be threatened, if not closed, on an annual basis by, ironically, a flood that turns southern Manitoba into a big lake.

"I don't like the flood," he said. "It costs the company a lot of time and money. Why did they not change it (the highway) years before? That's what I don't understand. Every year there's a problem and no one does anything."

Not exactly. The province has funded a hydrological study of the region where possible solutions range from raising the highway/bridge level to diverting incoming water sources to control levels. The problem is that any solution is not even near the decision-making stage, much less completion.

"We've taken large steps forward but we're still far away," noted Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde. "It may take four or maybe 10 years but I believe we will see a solution."

Perhaps, but by the time Tenner returns from the U.S. early next week with a load of tires from Findley, Ohio, there's no guarantee his final leg home will be detour-free.

His Canadian adventure might require a left turn at Morris.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 B5

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