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Published: Friday, 5/27/2011

COMMENTARY

Canada pushes case for new Windsor bridge

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- So what are the real risks to Michigan if the Legislature approves a second bridge over the Detroit River, now called the New International River Crossing?

None whatsoever, according to Roy Norton, Canada's consul general in Detroit: "The people of Michigan are in danger of getting stuck with absolutely nothing. Not a penny."

"This bridge is a gift to them," he said. "All the liability is being assumed by the governments of Canada and the United States, and the private contractor they will select to build the bridge."

During a wide-ranging interview, Canada's top diplomat in the region indicated strongly -- though in diplomatic language -- that the arguments against the bridge are essentially all, well, lies.

Most of the anti-bridge campaign is orchestrated by the family that owns the aging Ambassador Bridge, which is wearing out, has no backup, and carries more freight -- $170 billion a year -- than any other international crossing in the nation.

There is a very real economic danger to the entire region, the consul general said, if the new bridge doesn't get built.

"The Ambassador Bridge was built to last 100 years, and was not built for today's heavy trucks," Mr. Norton said. "Modern businesses need assurance that they are going to have a safe and reliable 21st-century infrastructure. If not, they may eventually leave."

Canada clearly wants the new bridge -- so much so that it has offered to front any costs the State of Michigan might incur, up to $550 million. Michigan would later pay this back painlessly, after the bridge is finished, out of its share of toll crossing revenue.

Mr. Norton acknowledges that his country's interests are at stake -- but quickly adds that private business interests, mostly in the United States, want and need it as well.

Ford Motor Company wants the bridge. So do General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda. Last year, then-Democratic Gov. Jennifer Gran-holm endorsed it. This year, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is behind it.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wants the bridge. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing wants the bridge. Everyone with any economic stake in the region wants and needs the new river crossing, except one man: Manuel Moroun, who turns 84 next month and is the sole owner of the Ambassdor Bridge, which is two years younger than he is.

To be fair, his wife and son are against the new bridge, too. And the three of them have managed to hold up any new crossing for years -- in large part because they donate vast sums of money to state legislative campaigns and causes, some of which are hard to trace. The Morouns are also spending vast sums on a noisy statewide disinformation campaign.

Mr. Norton is a high-ranking diplomat, sort of a miniambassador to the region that includes Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky -- an area that has as many people as all of Canada.

His main job here is to facilitate and encourage trade and commerce. And though Mr. Norton has been stationed in Detroit only nine months, he knows his stuff. Since he earned a doctorate in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he has been in and out of government and the private sector for more than two decades.

He can tell you without checking his notes that trade between Canada and Ohio was up 20 percent last year to $32 billion, and that 300,000 Ohio jobs depend on trade between the two nations.

And he can demonstrate that the claims made by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge are false.

For example, the Moroun family has claimed that they would be happy to "twin" their bridge, but says Canada won't allow it. Not so, Mr. Norton says.

"They have never even submitted the necessary paperwork for an environmental impact statement, even though we've repeatedly invited them to do so since 2007," he said. He hinted that such an approval might not happen.

Windsor, he acknowledges, is dead set against a second span of the Ambassador, in part because the last thing the nearby residential neighborhoods need is more traffic bringing congestion and exhaust fumes.

Nor can the toll plaza accommodate any more volume. Mr. Norton suggests that the owners of the Ambassador worry too much.

"The Ambassador Bridge is still going to be there," he said. "It is still going to be profitable, if perhaps not quite as profitable."

The new bridge project is not, Mr. Norton emphasized, "socialism" or a government boondoggle. Canada and the United States will jointly select a private contractor to build it, and private investment will be welcome. Meanwhile, construction will mean "10,000 direct jobs in southeast Michigan, and 25,000 indirect jobs," he says.

Nor will this happen overnight. Even if the Michigan Legislature were to give the green light to the new crossing this summer, the earliest the new bridge could be open to traffic would be 2016.

Mr. Moroun would be 89 by then. Mr. Norton did not speculate why a man who is worth $1.8 billion would worry about the threat of lower profits as he prepared to enter his tenth decade.

Perhaps wisely, I didn't ask.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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