The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel--For 80 Years, the Only Place You Can Drive Underwater Between Two Countries

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(fritzmb, Flickr)

(Detroit -- Rob St. Mary, WDET) From his office above the toll plaza, Neal Belitsky, the general manager of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, has a commanding view of downtown Detroit. But this morning he stares into a computer monitor displaying dozens of camera views of the almost mile long international crossing.

"This is the pillar section down the tunnel, and these are all pan tilt zoom cameras," he said, explaining what we're looking it.  "They're fine enough that if someone dropped a quarter on the roadway we'd be able to see it. And they are all digitally recorded."

Belitsky runs the tunnel's day-to-day operations for both owners - the Cities of Windsor (Canada) and Detroit. Although both municipalities now have a stake in the tunnel, it didn't start out that way. In the late 1920's, the border crossing was conceived as a for-profit competitor to the Ambassador Bridge. But that idea changed.

"What happened was folks back then who were granting the permits said you know, maybe we need to do something a little bit different from the Ambassador Bridge," Belitsky said. "So, where they got the rights in perpetuity, they told the tunnel folks they could go ahead and do that--but they could only have it for 60 years."

The tunnel was given to both cities in 1990--which means 2010 marks the 80th anniversary of this unique structure. But why is it so unique?

(Denis Giles, Flickr)

"The Detroit Windsor Tunnel is still the world's only international vehicular subaqueous tunnel," Belitsky said. "In plain English, that means this is still the only road tunnel you can drive through underwater going between two countries."

After our interview, Belitsky introduced me to facility manager Robert Howell. Howell handed me a hardhat and took me on a tour of the places most people never see when they drive through the tunnel. "I'm gonna take you into our ventilation building," he said. "This just houses a lot of our electrical and mechanical equipment that supplies the ventilation to the tunnel itself."

A four story building just beyond the Customs inspection stations houses huge fans and vents which are run by computers. A crew of engineers constantly monitor the air quality in the tunnel. The ventilation system cycles fresh air under the road and removes exhaust from overhead. This leads to the breeze often felt inside the tunnel. Howell says the system was upgraded about five years ago. Before that, the tunnel was run on 1930s ventilation technology.

During the tour, Howell led me to the basement of the ventilation building and to a locked door. The river exhaust duct gives access to a five-foot tall curved crawl space that runs along the entire roof off the tunnel.

"You can hear the traffic moving right along underneath," he said. "Feel the road way. This duct goes all the way through the entire tunnel - which is about a mile from portal to portal - and halfway between where they have the international border there' s a bulkhead-- that's a locked doorway that separates the international border in the exhaust duct itself."

So there's a locked door there to make sure people can't sneak through this way?

"That's correct," said Howell. "It was put there right past Prohibition time because they did have some of that back there during that time I understand."

(John Kannenberg, Flickr)

And while there are many vestiges of history around the tunnel, new technology is making its presence known. A multimillion dollar renovation project took place this summer, adding an additional customs inspection lane. In the coming year, another expansion is expected. Belitsky says the tunnel has also started electronic tolling and plans to incorporate new lighting to save energy and money. "You know," he said, "like any other business you really can't stand still. So we try to see what's out there in the world of engineering, in the world of toll collection, and incorporate those into the operation. We have been successful and customers have been very pleased with the results of the work that we have done."

As for the future of the border crossing, Belitsky says with annual inspections and continued maintenance. the tunnel could see another 80 years.

Listen to the story here.