Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > A Look Back on the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Advocacy for the Gordie Howe International Bridge

A Look Back on the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Advocacy for the Gordie Howe International Bridge

June 11, 2024

Executive Summary


As the third largest chamber of commerce in the nation, the Detroit Regional Chamber serves as the voice of business on key issues impacting the Detroit Region’s economic prosperity. Few recent issues have been more critical to Michigan’s continued revitalization than creating a third connection between Detroit and Windsor to support one of the world’s largest trade partnerships.


Leveraging one of the most respected advocacy programs in Michigan, for more than a decade the Chamber led efforts to support the new bridge project which – with the June 2024 connection of the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River – is now a reality.


It serves as a case study on the Chamber’s influence and impact on the Detroit Region and beyond.

The Detroit River Crossing: A Look Back on the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Advocacy for the Gordie Howe International Bridge

For more than a decade, the Detroit Regional Chamber advocated for a third connection between Detroit and Windsor – the busiest northern border crossing between Canada and the U.S., and a key hub in one of the densest, most interconnected transportation and trade corridors in North America.

The fruits of that leadership hit a critical milestone recently as construction crews working high above the Detroit River connected the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Gordie Howe International Bridge – creating a new critical artery for one of the world’s largest trading partnerships.

sandy k baruah Michiganian of the Year

“The long-enduring and lucrative trade relationship between Canada and the U.S. is one of our nation’s most important and central to our economic competitiveness and prosperity,” said Sandy K. Baruah, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chamber.

While the bridge work in recent years has largely been construction, the earliest and arguably hardest lift did not involve cranes or engineers at all.

It involved finding a way to move the project forward in the immediate years after the Great Recession with formidable, deep-pocketed opposition and a cash-strapped state legislature.

“This new crossing has been the Chamber’s top infrastructure priority for years and we put everything we had into making it a reality,” Baruah said. “We can’t overstate what the Gordie Howe International Bridge means to our members, particularly those in automotive, advanced manufacturing, and the supporting supply chain. This critical infrastructure is a game-changer and will drive economic growth in Michigan for decades to come.”

The Chamber’s leadership on this project included:

  • Raising awareness about the economic impact of the Detroit-Windsor border crossing and the need for a new crossing.
  • Advocating the state legislature to move the project forward amid stiff opposition.
  • Supporting then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to partner with the legislature, and then Canada to move the project forward.
  • Opposing Proposal 12-6, which could have undermined the project, and educating Michigan voters who soundly rejected the ballot proposal in 2012.

Protecting One of the Region’s Largest Economic Assets

With more than 200 million people and approximately $500 billion in goods moving across the Canadian-U.S. border annually, maintaining that flow had been a long-standing Chamber priority since the early 2000s.

Michigan accounted for more than half of the total U.S. trade with Canada, with almost all of it coming via the Detroit and Port Huron international border crossings. In 2008, total trade between Michigan and Canada exceeded $67.4 billion with Canada serving as the state’s most important trading partner.

Protecting that flow from congestion and delays gained prominence during and after the Great Recession, as did worries about the capacity of Michigan’s infrastructure. The Chamber began to emerge as a vocal advocate for the project and a supporter of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) Report, which reaffirmed support for the project by providing traffic numbers to the legislature to clarify the need for a second span.

“Congestion and delays at the border crossings have been an issue for several years and, if not addressed, can impact individual businesses and, ultimately, the overall economy. By 2030, if we do not address congestion problems, the Michigan-Ontario border would cost the economies of Michigan and Ontario a total of $6.3 billion in U.S. production annually,” stated an excerpt from “The Economic Impact of the Border” fact sheet put out by the Chamber and SEMCOG, which cited the DRIC Report.

Under both Baruah and the Chamber government relations team there before him, the Chamber advocated for building a span to add redundancy to the aging 75-year-old Ambassador Bridge to protect and enhance one of North America’s busiest trade crossings while protecting the automotive industry and its need for just-in-time delivery.

NITC Roundtable 2014
The Detroit Regional Chamber hosted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and then-U.S. Representative Gary Peters, in addition to other high-ranking officials, for a roundtable discussion on the proposed trade crossing in May 2014.

Elevating the Project’s Importance in the Face of Legislative Opposition

Despite the strong business case for another span, the project met strong political headwinds in a state still reeling from the Great Recession.

In order to move the project forward initially, the Michigan Legislature needed to pass legislation enabling the state to enter an agreement with Canada to build it, create a public-private partnership to finance it and collect tolls to pay for the bridge.

Operating one of the most well-respected advocacy offices in Lansing, the Chamber continued to rally the business community around the project and pressure lawmakers as it became known as the New International Trade Crossing (NITC).

Sarah Hubbard Headshot

“Our proximity to Canada is a competitive advantage for Michigan. If not for our connections to Canada, we are simply the end of the line — a peninsula state with no outlet. A left turn or a right turn on the map. With great access between the U.S. and Canada, we are the center of North American trade and a hub of economic activity,” wrote Sarah Hubbard, then a Senior Vice President at the Chamber, in her submitted testimony to the House Transportation Committee on April 29, 2010.

In the summer of 2011, the Chamber hosted a tour of the bridge site with members of the state Senate’s Economic Development Committee. The effort to raise support among lawmakers proved unsuccessful as the committee ultimately voted down the project.

Gordie Howe Groundbreaking
Gordie Howe Bridge Groundbreaking in 2018, featuring Gov. Rick Snyder.

Against Long Odds – A Chamber-Endorsed Governor Finds a Way

With the Legislature blocking the way, the Chamber would find a bridge champion in then-newly elected Gov. Rick Snyder.

After staying non-committal on the project in the 2010 election, Snyder – whom the Chamber endorsed early and loudly in a crowded Republican primary – eventually called for the bridge to be built in his first State of the State Address.

Snyder also kicked off the 2011 Mackinac Policy Conference calling for the bridge to be built.

“The Mackinac Bridge has been a shining example of what a modern bridge can do for our state,” said Snyder wearing a “Build the Bridge” pin and speaking at a press conference with Baruah and other leaders on the porch of the Grand Hotel at the Conference.

“[The Mackinac Bridge] has lived up to its expectations. Now it’s time to build a new bridge to Canada that will provide efficient and reliable infrastructure to the largest trading partner of Michigan and America,” Snyder added.

With Snyder ultimately finding himself blocked by the Republican-led legislature, he would take executive action in June of 2012, reaching an agreement directly with Canada to move the project forward. Under the agreement, Michigan was not obligated to pay any of NITC’s costs and no state appropriation was needed, allowing the move to circumvent the legislature.

Brad Williams

“Gov. Snyder stuck his neck out for this project,” said Brad Williams, Vice President of Government Affairs at the Chamber. “He kept running into obstacles in the legislature and it took a lot of political courage to push for the new bridge. It would have been easier to just walk away and point the finger at the legislature.”

As part of the agreement, Canada’s payment of $550 million on the project was eligible for matching U.S. federal funds as tolls charged in Canada would be used to reimburse the Canadian government. The Canadians also would pay for land acquisition in Canada and Michigan and the construction of an interchange to connect the NITC to I-75.

“It took one good person with executive authority or the new bridge doesn’t get done, because they wouldn’t do it legislatively. Gov. Snyder stepped up for Michigan big time,” Williams added.

Fighting Off Proposal 12-6 Push to Ensnare the Project in the Michigan Constitution

With the bridge project gaining momentum, another challenge would emerge with Proposal 12-6 on the ballot in the November 2012 election. Prop 12-6 stated that any new bridge crossing between the U.S. and Canada should be approved by the people per a constitutional amendment, and if passed, could have undermined Snyder’s deal.

Seeing the threat to its top infrastructure priority, the Chamber became the face of opposition to Prop 12-6, going to the media and raising voter awareness about voting “no.” 

“The Chamber was the opposition voice to Prop 6; it was us against a historically well-funded opposition, and we took every opportunity to tout why the new crossing was needed,” Williams said. “It was the biggest infrastructure project of my lifetime; we couldn’t have something that important go down without people understanding all that was at stake – and the voters delivered.”

Detroit Regional Chamber Vice President of Government Relations, Brad Williams, speaking at Chamber press conference in 2018.

Michigan voters ultimately rejected Proposal 6, 59.3% to 40.7%, and while other legal challenges would emerge, the heaviest political lift had been overcome. 

As the bridge now connects and construction nears completion, traffic will soon be crossing the new bridge – thanks in no small part to the Detroit Regional Chamber and its members, who elevated the issue until a path emerged to build the new international crossing over the Detroit River.