With Mich. bridge building amendment blocked; new span is in works

A freighter passes the Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit on the right and Windsor on the left. A new Canadian-financed bridge linking the cities could create thousands of jobs.
A freighter passes the Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit on the right and Windsor on the left. A new Canadian-financed bridge linking the cities could create thousands of jobs.

DETROIT — With an amendment to Michigan’s constitution that potentially would have blocked construction of a new bridge to Canada soundly defeated Tuesday, officials leading the project now are waiting for the issuance of various government permits before the so-called New International Trade Crossing project proceeds.

Ken Silfven, deputy press secretary to Gov. Rick Snyder, said Michigan’s application to the U.S. Department of State for a president’s permit to allow a new border crossing, filed in August, is one of several such steps that needs to be completed before land acquisition and other project development.

Although the border-crossing permit could be issued yet this year, “realistically, it could go into next year,” Mr. Silfven said Wednesday, a day after Michigan voters defeated the constitutional amendment. It was petitioned by a citizens’ group, The People Should Decide, organized and bankrolled by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, whose company owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Mr. Silfven said a U.S. Coast Guard permit for building a structure in a navigable waterway — the Detroit River — also must be secured, along with a “Buy America” waiver to allow use of Canadian-made steel to build the part of the bridge located in the United States. A governing board for the new bridge needs to be appointed too, he said.

It will be “a good year or two” before any actual construction begins, the gubernatorial spokesman said, adding that “we do expect the Ambassador Bridge owners will stick to their playbook” with further litigation.

Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, shared Mr. Silfven’s perspectives both on the project’s timeline and the likelihood of further conflict with the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Co.

Legislation pending in Canada’s Parliament would make the Canadian permitting process for the new bridge immune from legal challenge once it is completed, Mr. Norton said, with the intended goal of keeping the project from being subjected to extended litigation delays.

“The permits won’t be issued until after the legislation passes,” which Mr. Norton said may also occur by year’s end. “We’ll bulletproof the permits before they’re issued,” he said.

The consul general said that while polls taken close to the election showed a likely defeat for the constitutional amendment, “nothing suggested a 20 percent margin, and that’s a pretty pronounced rejection of the Moroun effort.

“The voters have spoken. Hopefully, a potential major impediment has been averted,” Mr. Norton said, before adding, “We anticipate litigation, because that’s what the Morouns do.”

Telephone calls Wednesday to the Detroit International Bridge Co. were not answered.

A study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor estimated 12,000 jobs would be created for each of the four to five years of construction, and more than 8,000 permanent jobs would be created in southeast Michigan once the bridge is open.

Companies in Ohio that have Ontario operations or customers also are expected to benefit from faster, more reliable travel times.

Mr. Norton is to be in Toledo today to meet with Mayor Mike Bell, with discussion likely to include the bridge project and mutual economic development issues.

“I think the vote is great,” Mr. Bell said Wednesday.

“One of the reasons I think that is that we are constantly talking about developing the corridor from here all the way up to the Canadian border, so the idea that there is the potential for a new bridge that is a bit closer to the city of Toledo, that could increase the commerce we are doing in Canada as well as northern America, and that is a benefit to everybody.”

The new bridge, which would cross the Detroit River from Windsor’s Brighton Beach neighborhood to the Delray section of southwest Detroit, is expected to cost about $4 billion to build, including toll and Customs plazas, land acquisition, and approaches on either side.

It would connect with I-75 at the Delray end and Ontario Highway 401 in Canada, bypassing not only the Ambassador Bridge but also Windsor’s stoplight-ridden Huron Church Road.

The construction agreement that Governor Snyder and Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, announced in June calls for Canada to finance the project completely, then recoup Michigan’s $550 million share of construction costs through toll collection.

That arrangement bypassed any appropriation of funds by the Michigan Legislature, where Mr. Moroun’s political allies had blocked funding.

The Ambassador Bridge, completed in 1929, is Canada’s busiest border crossing and the only one in the Detroit area suitable for large trucks.

An artery for an estimated $100 billion in annual automotive trade alone, it is prone to congestion during peak hours and when lanes are closed for maintenance, and its age worries business leaders who fear the cost and delays they would incur should it ever be closed or restricted to heavy vehicles.

Even without a catastrophe, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, congestion will cost U.S. and Canadian industry $17.8 billion per year.

“Any time you get hung up, it costs you time and certainly costs you money,” Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., told reporters during a June ceremony to announce the agreement. “This will be a huge boost to us as we send parts, powertrains, and vehicles back and forth across the border.”

The Detroit International Bridge Co. has proposed building a second bridge parallel to the Ambassador — a bridge still depicted on the Ambassador’s Web site, even though Canada has repeatedly denied permit applications.

Mr. Moroun’s campaign against a publicly built bridge has argued that it would destroy his private business and cost Michigan taxpayers theoretical construction overruns and operating expenses.

Mr. Norton disputed Wednesday that cross-border traffic is a zero-sum game: “Anything that will help the regional economy is going to cause traffic to grow.” He also proposed that The People Should Decide’s $33 million advertising campaign running up to the vote was counterproductive because it made people question how Mr. Moroun could afford to spend so much on the matter.

“They drew too much attention to themselves by spending grotesque amounts of money,” the consul general said.

Staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.