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Auto plants halting production, major trading bridge to U.S. shuts down

Newsman: The anti-vaccination trucker demonstrators have been setting up blockades at the two bridges linking Ontario and Michigan since Monday. Industry experts have described the situation as a “fragile supply chain.”

Officials on the Windsor side of the bridge have been struggling to open up access to the Ambassador Bridge and had only partly succeeded as of Wednesday morning, with a small flow of traffic trickling over to Michigan from the Canadian side. 

Authorities began redirecting traffic to two other routes linking Michigan and Ontario. Passenger traffic between Windsor and Ontario has been heavier than normal but is moving through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. But the route under the Detroit River can’t handle large trucks. They’ve had to head north to the Blue Water Bridge.

Within hours, authorities on both sides of the border declared the route closed. That quickly created a logistics nightmare. The span, which opened in November 1929, today serves about 2.5 million trucks annually, according to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority. It handles about $100 billion in cross-border shipments of automotive parts and fully assembled vehicles. The Ambassador Bridge alone accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all U.S.-Canadian trade.

Protest that already has paralyzed the Canadian capital, Ottawa, has now spread to Michigan’s border and threatens to create chaos in an auto industry already struggling to cope with. On Wednesday, the Chrysler Pacifica minivan plant became the first direct casualty. Officials with the leading global automaker Stellantis temporarily halted production at the factory because it doesn’t have enough parts. Ford on Wednesday became the second manufacturer to take steps to deal with parts shortages. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decried the demonstrations this week, insisting the protesters are “trying to blockade our economy, our democracy and our fellow citizens’ daily lives.”

 “It has to stop,” Trudeau said. But, if anything, the protest has spread, and on Monday, a vanguard group began blockading access to the Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit. Truckers have been tying up traffic in Ottawa since last month, protesting mask and vaccination mandates.

The Blue Water and Ambassador bridges together serve thousands of trucks every day many of them carrying automotive parts and finished vehicles.

It could be a matter of hours before other automakers, domestic and foreign, have to take steps at assembly and parts plants within hours of the two bridge crossings. Traffic over the Ambassador Bridge has come to a virtual halt. Only a small number of trucks moved from Canada to Michigan on Wednesday. The situation at the Blue Water Bridge connecting Sarnia, Ontario, to Port Huron, Michigan, isn’t much better, with reported delays of at least 4½ hours.

F“Blockades at Canada’s borders are threatening fragile supply chains already under pressure due to pandemic related shortages and backlogs,” Brian Kingston, the CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, said in a statement.

“We are calling on cooperation from all levels of government to resolve this situation and bring an immediate end to these blockades.”

General Motors, Detroit’s largest automaker, confirmed late on Wednesday that it had temporarily cut the second shift at a plant in Lansing, Michigan producing SUVS for the Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands.

Ford motor company said in a statement “While we continue to ship our current engine inventory to support our U.S. plants, we are running our plants at a reduced schedule today in Oakville [Ontario] and our Windsor engine plant is down.”

The auto industry has been struggling since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the three-month shutdown of production that was ordered in the spring of 2020. Since then, manufacturers have faced not only manpower issues, but also an ongoing shortage of semiconductor chips. Ford this week was forced to suspend or cut back production at eight North American assembly plants because of a lack of chips. A number of those plants are within an hour of the Ambassador Bridge and also depend on some Canadian-made parts.

“Basically if there’s a shutdown of transportation routes, the auto industry comes to a screeching halt in about two days,” Robert Wildeboer, the executive chairman of the parts supplier Martinrea International, told BNN Bloomberg Television on Tuesday.

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