Better Roads Staff
No Money Down
Cash-squeezed Michigan plans a new Detroit River crossing to Canada with ‘no risk’ to its weary taxpayers
By Mike Anderson
Officially, the long-running project to eventually build a new cross-border bridge in southeast Michigan is identified as the Detroit River International Crossing – or DRIC.
For those truckers who have idled for hours on or in front of the venerable Ambassador Bridge, deadlines running out for their just-in-time loads of new auto components, the experiences at the Detroit-Windsor crossing are more like DRIP… DRIP… DRIP – as in, “Friend, you aren’t going anywhere fast.”
For the past decade, through the ups and downs of public meetings, environmental reviews, funding dilemmas and political grandstanding (all times two since what happens on one side of the river must essentially be replicated on the other), it’s that one fact – the wait – that prevails.
Well, wait not too much longer, if the new State of Michigan Administration under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has its way. “We’re looking at the overall need to create an environment in Michigan conducive to job growth,” explains Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. “There really is just a critical need to make that freeway-to-freeway connection. We think that southeast Michigan, this particular corridor, has an opportunity to be a major international intermodal transportation hub.”
The rail crossing is in place, as is a major international airport a little further west, he says, but the key to future prosperity is relieving the ground transportation bottleneck via a new downriver crossing, directly linking to Interstate 75 south of Detroit and Highway 401 across the creek in Windsor, Ontario., providing additional access to not only Michigan’s major trading partner, but to Canadian ports positioned to relieve the overcrowding at U.S. docks. The Ambassador Bridge, first opened in 1929, is today the busiest North American border crossing and yet traffic flow often remains a mere trickle, damming the heavy flow of cross-border trade that is reflective of the continent’s modern-day manufacturing structure.
Most of the $43 billion in trade between Michigan and Ontario travels over this privately-owned bridge; the nearby Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is jointly owned by the two cities and is for local core-to-core traffic, mostly cars. The recent Gateway Project on the U.S. side has, as Lt. Governor Calley admits, somewhat improved flow from the Ambassador Bridge to I-75; the Canadian side remains an urban tangle, in which all vehicles to and from the bridge must drive along a city street, in front of homes and businesses, for about 8 miles.
The Snyder Administration, with Calley, also the State Senate President, as its lead on the border file, is pushing a Michigan bill that would set in place a structure under which “private-sector” construction and management would proceed on what would be an additional bridge owned bilaterally by the neighboring nations. “Previous attempts have essentially ignored the project itself and instead authorized an administrative department to enter into any public-private partnership that didn’t require a state appropriation – very, very broad authority that the previous administration tried to award the Department of Transportation. That’s not the sort of thing that the folks over in the legislature would normally be interested in accommodating,” Calley says during a face-to-face interview with Better Roads in his downtown Lansing office, acknowledging the imposing Italianate State Capitol building over his shoulder.
“What we’re proposing is authorization to go forward with ‘A’ project in ‘A’ location – a specific legislative authority.”
How Would It Work?
Under Governor Snyder’s proposal, Michigan would establish a new governmental authority for international trade crossings, not unlike the intra-state authority that operates the majestic, suspension Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsula, says Calley. The new international crossings authority would form a joint venture with its Canadian equivalent that would not actually build the new $1-billion Detroit River bridge, but rather draft a concessionaire agreement that would lay out specifications for both the bridge’s construction phase and its ongoing management for a period of up to 50 years. The international joint venture would put the project out to bid, and then choose a private partner to secure financing to design, build and operate the crossing that would remain owned, as is the norm, 50-50 by the U.S. and Canadian authorities.
“It is a true private-sector project,” says Calley, challenging the criticisms of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, whose Detroit International Bridge Company would like to build a second span at its site and has waged a public-relations campaign against Governor Snyder’s proposal (and a preceding legal fight against governments on both sides of the border). “The difference between this and the other, hypothetical alternative is that the hypothetical alternative, the twinning of the Ambassador Bridge, essentially grants a monopoly in a no-bid situation,” says Calley. “We’re interested in putting the power of the market behind this project. We’d be happy for the Ambassador Bridge folks to bid on this project – they’d be free to do so like everybody else – but they wouldn’t get a government-endorsed monopoly. It would be something they’d have to compete for and win.”
Bridge revenues moving forward would provide the security for the new crossing’s developer, says Calley. “The State of Michigan would not be required to either directly take on debt or indirectly guarantee any debt,” he says. “This is purely a private-sector risk, and the private sector will have to make a determination on its own: ‘Is the risk worth it?’ That’s an excellent check-and-balance in the proposal.” Interested private-sector parties would still have to conclude whether traffic patterns and international trade growth potential could support the project, “but trends make it a pretty easy answer to say, ‘Yes.”’
History Repeats . . . Sort Of
But what good is a new bridge, even one paid for by someone else, if the budget-strained State of Michigan can’t come up with the dollars for the construction necessary to accommodate the bridge? Without an I-75 interchange and border plaza, even the greatest structure known to mankind would be rendered useless.
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