Tom Walsh: New bridge is an opportunity region can’t waste

By Tom Walsh

From the Detroit Free Press

April 14, 2013

Now that President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department have officially chosen to accept Canada’s gift of a free bridge at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing by issuing a permit for the project, Michigan’s obligation is to put it to good use.

That’s not a given in a state that has squandered or underutilized assets in the past. More on that later.

First, we can celebrate the green light given to the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) for what it is — a symbol of a region looking forward, investing in growth.

“For those of us who are in the economic development business, it gives us something to sell. We now will have a visible symbol and an actual tool to make it a lot easier to attract companies that are involved in international trade,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

David Egner, head of the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan, said research has shown that Michigan could create a series of logistics hubs that would yield 66,000 new jobs — partly by capturing business that now flows through congested Chicago — but only if a new border crossing provides capacity to handle more traffic.

“It could change the game, including for the west side of the state,” Egner said. “This is a perfect east-west partnership, because today if manufacturers on the west side ship through Chicago, it sits for three days before it moves.”

While border crossing data show that Ambassador Bridge traffic has not fully recovered from the slump after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NITC project suggests a brighter future, a region on the move.

“The past trajectory of the bridge traffic has mirrored the trajectory of the Big Three automakers,” Baruah said. “As we see their sales start to spike, their challenge is that if the capacity of the bridge between the U.S. and Canada is constrained, then where are they going to add future capacity to build their cars, now that their trajectory is higher?”

The near-term stimulus of construction jobs is important, too. “This bridge is going to take years to build and will probably have, at various times, tens of thousands of people working on it,” Baruah said. “Even though those are short-term jobs, they feed a narrative of good things happening in Michigan.”

When I asked Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday whether Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun might now be ready to drop efforts to block the NITC project, Snyder said he hasn’t seen any such signals yet, but he is open to discussion on how the public and private bridges could coexist.

“You hope at some point that people recognize this project’s going to move forward because it’s for the benefit of Michiganders,” Snyder said. “I’m always open, and I hope the Canadians are open to sitting down to talk. This is one of those milestones that hopefully reinforces the fact that this project should happen and will happen.”

Whatever tack Moroun takes with the existing bridge, it’s crucial that Michigan’s business and civic leaders hunker down seriously to maximize the benefits of the NITC by laying the groundwork for new industries and for expanding existing businesses.

A classic example of failing to capitalize on a major asset has been the region’s lackluster effort to take advantage of the outstanding McNamara Terminal and other upgrades at Detroit Metro Airport.

It has been 11 years now since the 122-gate, $1.2-billion McNamara Terminal opened, winning raves from travelers and the news media alike. But once visitors leave Metro Airport’s baggage claim area, they are peeved to discover they must fork over $70 for a ride to a downtown Detroit business hotel, or nearly $90 to get to Birmingham.

How can a region that’s serious about business and growth put up with the lack of even a mediocre system of shuttles to get people from the airport to major lodging and conference spots in the region? Thankfully, the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau is working on a proposal to improve airport transit. Let’s hope they come up with something workable — and soon.

Meanwhile, we should look at the new bridge the same way we look at the airport: It’s a tremendous potential asset, but it must leveraged.

Just as there’s been much talk about the growth potential of an Aerotropolis development area between Metro and Willow Run airports, there has also been much talk of maximizing the busy border crossing to attract more logistics and freight business.

“There are bunches of plans on paper, but nothing that’s been done in an aggregated manner that makes sense and that the state has embraced,” Egner said.

By the time shovels are in the ground for NITC construction, let’s hope there’s movement on how best to take advantage of it.

Contact Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or twalsh@freepress.com

Transport minister says path clear for Detroit-Windsor bridge

From CBC News
November 7, 2012

Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the path is now clear for a new bridge to be constructed between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, after Michigan voters were asked to weigh in on whether they should have a say in such a project.

During U.S. elections Tuesday, Michigan voters defeated Proposal 6, which would have called for a statewide vote on plans for any new international crossing, including the proposed new bridge over the Detroit River. Slightly more than 60 per cent of voters turned down the proposal, which would have been entrenched in the state’s constitution.

Proposal 6 was one of the final hurdles that needed to be cleared for the building of a new bridge to proceed, and provide competition for the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, Canada’s busiest border crossing, owned by billionaire Matty Moroun.

Lebel said the bridge will now be built “as soon as possible.”

“We’re waiting now for a presidential permit. As soon as we can, we will move forward,” Lebel said Wednesday in Ottawa. “We will continue to work with President Obama to get the necessary presidential permit to allow the bridge to succeed.”

Transport Canada spokesperson Mark Butler said in an email the project can proceed on the U.S. side after a presidential permit and a coast guard permit are issued.

“Meanwhile, Transport Canada officials will continue to work with officials from the Michigan Department of Transportation to complete the requisite due diligence on the project forward on the Michigan side, including further project planning and design work,” Butler wrote.

From India, where he is on a trade mission, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the results of the vote on Proposal 6.

“We’re very pleased to see the support of the people of Michigan for the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, which is very important to the economies of both our countries,” he said. “I look forward, in particular, to working with [President Barack Obama] on the Beyond the Border initiative, which is obviously very important for the opportunities for Canadians and Americans going forward.”

Lebel praised the result.

“This is good news for travellers, workers and industry on both sides of the border, who will benefit from the new publicly owned bridge,” he said. “The new bridge will attract new investments and business opportunities to boost our local and national economies, and will result in much needed jobs for Ontario and Michigan communities.

“The new crossing will also increase border capacity to handle future trade and travel growth, and will be built with the security of both our countries in mind.

Moroun was behind the ballot proposal. He spent more than $30 million in advertising to promote it to sway voters.

Some observers believe Moroun will now take his battle to court on both sides of the border.

“We can’t say what will happen. I will not speak about what Mr. Moroun will do in the future,” Lebel said. “We’ll do this bridge, I’m sure of it.”

The threat of legal action didn’t seem to concern Conservative Essex MP, Jeff Watson, on Wednesday.

“We’ll be insulated from any further legal action,” he said.

Early in October, the Conservatives introduced the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act as a part of the omnibus budget bill tabled in the House of Commons.

Once passed, bridge construction would be immune to laws governing permits, approvals and authorizations, including the Environmental Assessment Act and the Species at Risk Act.

Payment plan disputed

Canada has agreed to pay Michigan’s $550-million share of a new $1-billion publicly owned international bridge from west Windsor to Detroit.

The People Should Decide ballot committee has long insisted that Michigan taxpayers will eventually end up paying something for a new bridge.

“It is clear the voters resisted amending the constitution, but it would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk,” committee spokesperson Mickey Blashfield said in a statement. “We have full confidence that the citizens, legislature and financial community will continue to hold any bridge to its promises of ‘not one dime of taxpayer money.'”

Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse said the fact Moroun was able to spend $30 million on the campaign tells him the Ambassador Bridge tolls are too high.

“The actual government on the Canadian side needs to actually start regulating their toll rates because we have the highest toll rates in Ontario for a bridge that has the highest volumes,” Masse said. “I can’t understand why we continue to allow that situation to exist when it’s clear that volume should actually dictate price, and we should actually be reducing the rates.”

Ottawa has never said how much tolls will be on the new bridge. Ottawa has only said tolls will be collected on the Canadian side and be used to pay off the investment.

Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, did not support Proposal 6.

“Two bridges are better than one, for two-way trade, for security, for reliability,” he said. “When you look at the proposal that the prime minister and the governor of Michigan came forward with, it cuts out a lot of traffic lights in Windsor. So that’s good for the environment and for traffic on our side of the border.

“And it’s got the support of all the Great Lakes states and provinces.”

Locally, Essex Conservative MP Jeff Watson said the decision “clears the way for construction.”

“I am very pleased that Michiganders have endorsed the new publicly owned bridge across the Detroit River,” he said in a statement. “This new crossing will reduce congestion at the border and make our manufacturers more competitive.

“Moving this project forward will also help Canadian businesses and farms reach existing and new markets in the United States.

“Together we will get the job done and build a bridge for the future.”

Business support
Chambers of commerce and some unions on both sides of the border want a new bridge. They say it will increase trade and create thousands of much-needed jobs — Windsor has Canada’s highest unemployment rate.

Matt Marchand, president of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, is pleased, saying business groups on both sides of the border campaigned to ensure people heard the facts, in spite of Moroun’s advertising blitz.

“We’re just looking forward to new cross-border infrastructure and if there are hurdles thrown at it, so be it,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s an agreement signed by the prime minister and the governor, along with the voters from Michigan giving the go-ahead.”

Marchand believes Moroun will continue to fight construction of a new bridge, likely in the courts.

Sandy Baruah, the CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, hopes that isn’t the case. He said the result is a clear message from the people of Michigan.

“Matty Moroun and the Ambassador Bridge Company ran an entire campaign and spent $31-plus million saying ‘the People Should Decide.’ Now, it’ll be up to them to determine if they’re going to honour that word — the people have clearly decided that they reject that proposal and that they want this bridge.”