Canada and the Bridge

May 26, 2011

We live in highly polarized times. But even by those standards, it is remarkable how much those who support a new bridge over the Detroit River, and those who oppose it, differ.

Differ not just on the merits of a new bridge, but on the most basic facts. Those who oppose the new bridge claim that Michigan taxpayers could be stuck for a hundred million dollars a year. Those who oppose the new bridge - mainly, those who work for the owner of the Ambassador Bridge - Matty Moroun - say that traffic has been declining and another structure isn’t needed.

But they say Moroun is willing to build one anyway, at no cost to the taxpayers, and that this is best left to private enterprise. Those who want a new bridge say it is very much needed, that this is not “socialism” but a public-private partnership. They say the old bridge is wearing out, there is no backup, and that a new one will be desperately needed if Michigan is to be economically competitive.

Well, for a different perspective, I talked with Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general based in Detroit. He is his country’s main diplomatic and trade representative in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. That area has as many people as the entire nation of Canada, and in it, he functions as the equivalent of an ambassador, working out of a vast suite of offices in Detroit’s Renaissance Center.

Norton, who has a doctorate in international relations from Harvard, knows his stuff. He has also worked as a consultant in the private sector, and years ago worked on negotiating the intellectual property portion of the NAFTA trade agreement.

And, he has spent considerable time on the bridge issue. Diplomats speak in carefully polished language, and try to avoid calling people liars. But in carefully crafted words, he told me that all the truth was on the side of those arguing for the new bridge.

The arguments being made by the Moroun family, and those he’s contributed money to, are, to use Norton’s restrained phrase, “completely inaccurate.”  For one thing, he said, there is no way Michigan taxpayers are at risk for a penny.

They are, however, at huge risk if the new bridge doesn’t get built. “Twinning” the Ambassador Bridge makes no sense because that would put it in the middle of an already crowded residential neighborhood. The proposed new bridge would take traffic directly onto the expressway, the consul  said.

Additionally, the government of Windsor thinks the added exhaust fumes would be an environmental hazard. But despite rumors, Canada has not denied Moroun permits to build a second bridge. Canada hasn’t ruled one way or another because  Moroun has never even applied for the necessary environmental study.

There is, the consul told me, no more economically important trade crossing in this nation than that between Michigan and Ontario, and billions are at stake, a number growing greater every day.

So Canada doesn’t see a single reason why we shouldn’t just go ahead and get this bridge done, the sooner the better.

Neither does the governor, or any of the local chambers of commerce. Only one monopoly interest is opposed. And that he has been able to delay this project so long is nothing short of amazing.