Michigan Bridge Project Hits Political Snags

  • March 01, 2012
  • By Daniel C. Vock
 
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Detroit's 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge carries a quarter of the commercial traffic between the United States and Canada. Many believe a more modern bridge would promote economic development and create jobs. 

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says he can give the state a second bridge from Detroit to Canada that would spur international trade, guard against disasters and create thousands of jobs. All of that, Snyder says, would not cost Michigan taxpayers a thing. The Canadian government and private companies would pick up the tab, while Michigan would get a $2 billion windfall to fix its other roads and bridges.

So far, though, the plan has gone nowhere. Even with broad support from the business community, Snyder's scheme stalled in the state legislature, and while he insists he still wants to win over lawmakers, allies say the governor is exploring whether to go ahead without legislative approval. " We do see this as vital," says Snyder's spokesman, Ken Silfven, "and we're convinced that it's going to happen. We don't have a timetable for you, but we are not giving up."

The plan to build the new bridge is shaped by two major considerations: Canada really wants it to be built, and Michigan is in no shape (or mood) to pay for it.

The chief obstacle is the group that owns the Ambassador Bridge, currently the main commercial link between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. That group has blocked Snyder so far with aggressive lobbying at the state capitol and with a multimillion dollar ad campaign on television. The Ambassador's owners argue that the governor's proposal is too good to be true and that, in the end, Michigan taxpayers will be left holding the bag for an expensive new bridge.

The United States and Canada have the largest international trading partnership in the world, and the four-lane Ambassador Bridge handles a quarter of all the goods shipped between the two countries. Cars and trains can use tunnels to get from Detroit to Windsor, but for trucks, the Ambassador Bridge is the only way across. The nearest alternate route is 60 miles away.

"By value and volume, it is the most important border crossing anywhere in the world. And it's 83 years of age," says Ray Norton, Canada's consul general in Detroit. "We think that, prudently, governments should provision for the future to ensure that there will be capacity."

The Snyder administration agrees. "If Michigan is going to prosper, it has to become a bigger player on the global trade scene," says Silfven. "Having a second crossing would certainly do that by opening more doors for our farmers and manufacturers and entrepreneurs."

Canada also hopes to play a bigger role in moving goods into the United States, by taking freight from the East Coast and delivering it to the Midwest through Detroit. That too could be a boost to a Michigan economy that has suffered mightily with the downturn of the auto industry.

Making the case

One of the chief complaints about the Ambassador Bridge is not the span itself, but the road to it on the Canadian side. Michigan's lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, has called the seven-mile stretch between the Ambassador Bridge and the nearest Canadian freeway "the worst bottleneck in the entire Pan-American freeway system." A truck can travel from Mexico City to Montreal, he says, and the only stoplights it will run into are the 18 stoplights on that stretch.

The new bridge, which the governor calls the "New International Trade Crossing," would eliminate that problem by hooking directly into freeways on both sides of the border. Vehicles would still have to stop for customs and tolls, but not for stoplights.

Private investors would put up the $1 billion cost of the actual bridge, which they would hope to recover, along with maintenance costs and profit, from toll revenues. The same private investors would also pay $550 million to connect Interstate 75 in Michigan to the new bridge. If tolls do not bring in enough money to cover costs, Canada says it would make up the difference, even for the Michigan improvements.

As a bonus, the U.S. government has agreed to count the $550 million in private investment to build the Michigan connections as state spending on highway projects. With its typical 4-1 ratio, that means the federal government would send Michigan more than $2 billion to spend on other transportation needs. The new kitty, says Silvfen, is a "major selling point."

But the biggest issue has been whether Michigan taxpayers are sufficiently protected in case, as the Ambassador Bridge owners predict, the new bridge turns out to be a bust.

The Canadian government insists there is no such danger. "It is not a loan to Michigan," says Norton. "The money never runs into Michigan's coffers. It will be fronted by Canada to the private sector builder of the bridge, and they will repay Canada from tolls." In the event that there is not enough money to repay Canada, he adds, "Canada … assumes all of the liability, and Michigan assumes none."

A formidable foe

The Moroun family, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, disputes that there is a need for a separate bridge in Detroit. It is their company that mounted the TV advertising campaign that has helped to sink Snyder's proposal. The Morouns' opponents question the accuracy of those ads, but they do not doubt their effectiveness. In the legislature last year, Snyder's plan only got as far as the hearing stage, where a Senate committee bottled it up.

" There is no business case, there is no traffic case and there is no legislative case for this," says Mickey Blashfield, a lobbyist for the Ambassador Bridge owners.

The governor's traffic estimates, Blashfield says, are far too high, and his cost estimates are far too low. The company says traffic is down on the Ambassador Bridge in the last decade. And the owners note that a group is pushing to build a new rail tunnel under the Detroit River that could sap demand for the new bridge.

They question the promise that Michigan taxpayers will never pay for the new span. They point out that the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan's two peninsulas, also was supposed to be paid for with toll revenues. Instead, the state almost immediately had to subsidize it.

Meanwhile, the Morouns want to expand their business by adding a six-lane span next to the current four-lane Ambassador Bridge. Blashfield says the company wants its own second crossing, not because it expects higher traffic volumes, but because it wants to streamline the way its current traffic is handled. A new bridge alongside the Ambassador would require no extra toll booths, customs houses or highway expansions, he adds.

Canada has not signed off on the Ambassador Bridge expansion and Norton, the consul, says it would only make traffic problems in Windsor worse.

Complicating the Morouns' push is their local notoriety. A judge jailed the head of the family, 84-year-old Manuel "Matty" Moroun, in January for contempt of court. Moroun spent the night in custody because engineers for the Ambassador Bridge had not obeyed the judge's orders when ramps were constructed to connect the bridge to a Michigan interstate.

But many proponents worry that the discussion about a second bridge will get sidetracked by the focus on personalities. The crucial question, they say, is how to finally reach an agreement on an issue that has been discussed in Lansing for at least a decade.

"Big projects have big price tags and sometimes big questions that come with them that need to be answered," says Richard Dudley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. But he adds that "nobody's being asked to build a spaceship to Mars. In the end, it is a bridge project between two good neighbors. We ought to be able to figure it out."

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