Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 15, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Where is new bridge to Canada?


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — So whatever happened to the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River?

Why hasn’t ground been broken yet? When will construction start? Didn’t the two governments sign an agreement last year?

Didn’t President Barack Obama issue a presidential permit for the bridge back in April? Didn’t Michigan voters last year decisively defeat Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun’s attempt to give himself a perpetual monopoly over the nation’s most important trade crossing?

Well, yes, all those things are true. Yet it turns out there is one last remaining real hurdle. Not the nuisance lawsuits continually filed by Matty Moroun, an 86-year-old billionaire with money to burn.

Not the last remaining parcels of land to be acquired and soil testing to be done. The holdup comes from Washington, and, bizarrely, the Obama Administration itself may be the main culprit.

Canada has, as most who have been following this issue know, offered to front all of Michigan’s share of the costs for what is estimated to be a $4 billion project. That money is eventually to be paid out of the state’s share of the bridge tolls.

But there is one remaining expense that is the responsibility of the U.S. government: A customs plaza, which is required at any international border crossing. Estimates are this will cost about $250 million, and would have to be approved by Congress.

Yet the administration has yet to send up legislation asking for this to be approved. Granted, getting any new expense approved isn’t easy, given divided control of government, the sequestration wars, and the poisonous atmosphere between the parties.

However, there is broad — if reluctant — bipartisan agreement that a new bridge is needed. Michigan’s Republican governor may be the bridge’s loudest champion, but most of the state’s Democratic delegation endorsed it even before he was elected.

President Obama has also been a strong bridge supporter. So what’s the problem? According to Roy Norton, Canada’s Consul General in Detroit, it is simply that some fairly senior officials in the administration think Canada should pay for the customs plaza, too.

That strikes Canada as a little much. Norton, a longtime diplomat who has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, says “we really think our paying 15 sixteenths of this project is more than fair.”

What nobody disputes — apart from the owners of the Ambassador Bridge — is this: A new bridge is vitally important. Building one will take at least three to five years, if not longer. The current bridge will be 85 years old next year, and is wearing out.

Built in 1929, it was plainly not made for the volume of freight or the size of today’s trucks, which can often be seen stacked up along I-75, enduing colossal and expensive delays.

Were the Ambassador Bridge to collapse or be shut down, it would cause crippling bottlenecks that would wreak havoc with the economies of the entire region, especially Michigan and Ontario.

Fully one-quarter of all U.S.-Canada trade moves across the Ambassador Bridge, mainly heavy freight. And there is no backup, apart from already heavily used bridges at Buffalo and Port Huron.

Nobody knows whether the customs plaza issue has been a subject for discussion between President Obama and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. It is known that Washington believes — correctly — that the bridge is even more important to Canada than it is to the United States.

That may mean, in this time of budget restraints, that President Obama may think he has Ottawa over a barrel — and is hoping to score some points with the fiscal hawks by shrewdly getting Canada to come up with all the costs of the new project.

In any event, Canadian diplomats will be watching carefully to see if President Obama mentions the new bridge or the customs plaza in his State of the Union speech Jan. 21. They are even more concerned to see it as an item in his budget.

For Norton, a veteran negotiator who has had two tours of duty in Washington, it is curious why politicians in this country — especially perhaps in Michigan — aren’t pushing harder to get the bridge started, because of its enormous positive economic impact.

“Study after study has estimated that more than 10,000 full-time jobs in the construction sector alone will be created from this project, just in Michigan. Good paying jobs.” Those jobs would last, on average, four years. Norton estimates that another 13,000 “ripple effect” jobs would also be created, some of them permanent.

Nobody doubts that good paying jobs are urgently needed. Nor do the immediate economic benefits to Michigan stop there. Once the bridge is clearly under way, Mr. Norton notes, the $550 million Canada is putting in as Michigan’s share will qualify the state for an extra $2.2 billion in matching federal funds for road construction and repair, money that could be used anywhere in Michigan.

That alone, one would think, is far more than enough reason to justify the state’s congressmen asking Washington to quit stalling and get moving on appropriating funds for a customs plaza.

One wonders why more of the state’s movers, shakers and lobbyists aren’t trying to get this deal finally done, now. Or how many of the state’s citizens really understand what’s at stake.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.