De­spite Cana­dian fund­ing, bridge plan di­vides Detroit

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY AN­DREA BILLUPS

DETROIT | It’s sup­posed to unite two coun­tries, but a pro­posed $2 bil­lion bridge link­ing this city to nearby Wind­sor, On­tario, is prov­ing a di­vi­sive idea in these parts.

The span, de­signed to com­ple­ment, and per­haps sup­plant, a pri­vately owned bridge built dur­ing the Hoover ad­min­is­tra­tion, has sparked a fierce de­bate, with the new Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and his al­lies ar­gu­ing that a sec­ond bridge will bring jobs and en­hance trade, while crit­ics say this is a pro­ject tax­pay­ers in an al­ready cash-strapped state sim­ply can’t af­ford.

The Michi­gan leg­is­la­ture will be­gin dis­cus­sion Wed­nes­day on con­struc­tion of the New In­ter­na­tional Trade Cross­ing (NITC), a pro­ject that has been un­der study for nearly a decade but stalled in the State­house last year.

While other new Repub­li­can gov­er­nors have made head­lines by slash­ing costs and killing pub­lic projects, Gov. Rick Sny­der, an en­tre­pre­neur who seeks to draw more busi­ness to the state, sup­ports the bridge, which would span the Detroit River link­ing the Mo­tor City and Wind­sor.

Mr. Sny­der touted the bridge pro­ject in his first State of the State speech this year.

He also re­it­er­ated his sup­port this month at the an­nual state pub­lic-pol­icy con­fer­ence held at the his­toric Grand Ho­tel on Mack­inac Is­land, in view of the enor­mous Eisen­hower-era bridge that con­nects the state’s up­per and lower penin­su­las.

“The Mack­inac Bridge has been a shin­ing ex­am­ple of what a mod­ern bridge can do for our state,” he said. “It has lived up to its ex­pec­ta­tions. Now it’s time to build a new bridge to Canada that will pro­vide efficient and re­li­able in­fra­struc­ture to the largest trad­ing part­ner of Michi­gan and Amer­ica.”

An es­ti­mated 10,000 com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles per day cross the Am­bas­sador Bridge, a 7,500-foot sus­pen­sion bridge, which first linked the two coun­tries in Novem­ber 1929. Two other routes also are avail­able for driv­ers: the un­der­wa­ter Detroit-Wind­sor Tun­nel and the Blue Wa­ter Bridge, about 60 miles away in Port Huron.

De­spite its age, the Am­bas­sador is by no means ob­so­lete. It is a pri­mary route for auto sup­pli­ers and the busiest in­ter­na­tional bor­der cross­ing in North Amer­ica in terms of trade vol­ume, with more than a quar­ter of all mer­chan­dise trade be­tween the United States and Canada, the world’s two largest trad­ing part­ners, cross­ing the bridge.

Busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal pro­po­nents ar­gue that a sec­ond bridge could bring thou­sands of con­struc­tion-re­lated jobs to the state, where un­em­ploy­ment con­tin­ues in dou­ble dig­its, even as the auto in­dus­try has re­bounded in re­cent months.

Mr. Sny­der has asked state lawmakers to come to an agree­ment on a bridge within the month. The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, ex­pect­ing to re­coup fi­nanc­ing through toll fees, will pay the state of Michi­gan’s por­tion of the bridge cost, es­ti­mated at $550 mil­lion. That fund­ing would go di­rectly to the con­trac­tor, lim­it­ing any li­a­bil­i­ties for the state.

Costs to com­plete the span, which would ease traf­fic con­ges­tion on the Cana­dian side in Wind­sor, are es­ti­mated at $2 bil­lion. The bridge would be jointly owned by Canada and the state of Michi­gan.

The bill un­der dis­cus­sion pre- cludes the use of Michi­gan tax dol­lars to fund the state’s por­tion of the pro­ject. The leg­is­la­tion also pro­vides for a five-mem­ber in­de­pen­dent bridge au­thor­ity ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor and ap­proved by the state Se­nate, which would have the power to is­sue bonds and work with the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment on the deal.

But the pri­vate owner of the 81-year-old Am­bas­sador Bridge has em­barked on a fierce ef­fort to squelch the pub­lic pro­ject, dub­bing it too costly, es­pe­cially, he coun­ters, if toll fares fail to cover the bill to build it.

Manuel Moroun, a bil­lion­aire truck­ing com­pany mag­nate from Grosse Pointe who owns the Detroit In­ter­na­tional Bridge Co., has fought the pro­ject, which would take away some of his busi­ness, with TV ads and an ex­pen­sive pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paign, say­ing that traf­fic on his own bridge is down 40 per­cent since 2000.

He has said he would rather re­fur­bish the cur­rent struc­ture or build a twin-span bridge with his own money, even as de­trac­tors de­cry what they de­scribe as his mo­nop­oly and a lack of road­way competition at a key bor­der pas­sage.

“We’ve spent a lot of money,” Mr. Moroun told pub­lic ra­dio-TV sta­tion WKAR in East Lans­ing about ef­forts to get in­for­ma­tion about his bridge plans to the pub­lic. “We’re try­ing to get the facts out there. We don’t have the bully pul­pit like the gov­er­nor.”

His ap­pli­ca­tion to build a sec­ond Am­bas­sador Bridge span was re­jected by the U.S. Coast Guard in March 2010 over prob­lems with se­cur­ing prop­erty rights and on­go­ing law­suits with state and fed­eral agen­cies. Coast Guard ap­proval is re­quired be­cause the fed­eral agency holds au­thor­ity over nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways.

Mr. Moroun’s com­pany also has been in court af­ter it was sued by the Michi­gan Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (MDOT) over the de­sign of a 2009 $230 mil­lion “Gateway” pro­ject that con­nected the cur­rent bridge and Michi­gan in­ter­state high­ways via a se­ries of ramps.

The state ar­gued that the bridge own­ers did not fol­low through on plans that were agreed upon in the orig­i­nal de­sign for traf­fic flow, in­stead build­ing a duty-free store and a fuel sta­tion where the ramps were sup­posed to be.

A judge in 2010 agreed with MDOT and or­dered the bridge own­ers to com­ply, even if it meant re­build­ing the pump­ing sta­tion and duty-free shop, but they re­fused. The case con­tin­ues with at­tor­neys for the bridge com­pany ar­gu­ing that there never was a manda­tory de­sign that they had to fol­low.

Mr. Moroun de­fended his busi­ness and said his com­pany was do­ing bet­ter in the court case. He ar­gued that his plan was in the best in­ter­est of cit­i­zens of Michi­gan.

“We don’t need tax­pay­ers to sup­port the sec­ond bridge when I’ve been will­ing to put that sec­ond bridge up for free in an eco­nom­i­cal man­ner,” Mr. Moroun said in an ap­pear­ance broad­cast Sun­day on WKAR’s “Off the Record,” a weekly pub­lic tele­vi­sion pro­gram that cov­ers state gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics.

“The gov­ern­ment wants to build a new bridge, even though there is not enough traf­fic to do it,” he said.

Mr. Moroun is not alone in his op­po­si­tion. Two weeks ago, fliers posted as mock evic­tion no­tices were de­liv­ered to res­i­dents in Detroit’s Del­ray neigh­bor­hood near where the new bridge would con­nect. They came from the tax­payer-rights group Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, Michi­gan, which has said that the ex­ist­ing bridge is ad­e­quate for cur­rent traf­fic rates.

“We don’t be­lieve that the tax­pay­ers of Michi­gan should be sub­jected to a $550 mil­lion loan from Canada,” for a new bridge, said AFT-Michi­gan Di­rec­tor Scott Hager­strom. “We can’t af­ford to main­tain what [roads] we al­ready have.”

Mr. Hager­strom also said the gov­ern­ment’s claim of jobs with the bridge con­struc­tion pro­ject was over­stated.

“We don’t be­lieve in just make-work projects,” he said. “We should just spend money to cre­ate jobs. We need real jobs here in Michi­gan.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Trou­bled waters: Thou­sands of com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles cross the Am­bas­sador Bridge, as viewed from Wind­sor, On­tario, ev­ery day.

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