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Published: Thursday, 12/12/2013

U.S.-Canada bridge delay comes from unlikely source

Canadian diplomats will watch to see whether President Obama mentions the bridge or the customs plaza in his State of the Union speech

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE COLUMNIST
Lessenberry. Lessenberry.
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DETROIT — Whatever happened to the New International Trade Crossing bridge over the Detroit River? Why hasn’t ground been broken? When will construction start?

Didn’t the American and Canadian governments sign an agreement last year? Didn’t President Obama issue a permit for the bridge in April? Didn’t Michigan voters, in November, 2012, decisively defeat Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun’s attempt to give himself a perpetual monopoly over the nation’s most important trade crossing?

All true. But one remaining hurdle does not involve the nuisance lawsuits continually filed by Mr. Moroun, an 86-year-old billionaire with money to burn, or the last remaining parcels of land to be acquired and soil testing to be done.

The holdup comes from Washington. The Obama Administration may be the main culprit.

Canada, as most who have been following this issue know, has 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 repaid out of the state’s share of the tolls on the new bridge.

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

Yet the Obama Administration has yet to ask Congress for the plaza. Granted, getting any new expense approved isn’t easy, given divided control of government, the budget 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, Rick Snyder, may be the bridge’s loudest champion, but most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation endorsed it even before Mr. Snyder 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, some fairly senior officials in the administration think Canada should pay for the customs plaza too.

That strikes Canada as a little much. Mr. Norton, a longtime diplomat, says: “We really think our paying 15-16ths of this project is more than fair.”

Nobody disputes — apart from the owners of the Ambassador Bridge — that a new bridge is vital. Building one will take at least three to five years, if not longer. The Ambassador Bridge will be 85 years old next year, and is wearing out.

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, enduring 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, Mich.

Nobody is saying whether the customs plaza issue has been a subject of 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 could mean, in this time of budget restraint, that President Obama may think he has Ottawa over a barrel — and is hoping to score points with fiscal hawks by shrewdly getting Canada to come up with all the costs of the new project.

Canadian diplomats will be watching carefully to see whether President Obama mentions the new bridge or the customs plaza in his State of the Union speech Jan. 21. They are even more concerned about whether the bridge or plaza will appear in his new budget.

For Mr. Norton, a veteran negotiator who has had two tours of duty in Washington, it is curious that politicians in this country — especially 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,” Mr. Norton said. “Good-paying jobs.”

Those jobs would last, on average, four years. Mr. Norton estimates that 13,000 “ripple effect” jobs — some of them permanent — also would be created.

Once the bridge is clearly under way, Mr. Norton notes, the $550 million that 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. That money could be used anywhere in Michigan.

That alone, you would think, is more than enough reason to justify the state’s members of Congress asking Washington to quit stalling and get moving on appropriating money for a customs plaza.

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

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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