Commentary: Canada and the bridge

Sep 11, 2012

After weeks of court battles, the Michigan ballot is now final, and in addition to a boatload of candidates, we will be asked to decide six statewide ballot proposals.

One of these is designed to prevent anyone from building a new bridge to Canada, no matter who, what or why, without first holding a statewide vote of the people. That may sound sensible.

But it is anything but. This is the result of a private monopoly spending millions of dollars in order to keep a stranglehold on trade.

As a result, the economy of Michigan is being threatened. And because of the willingness of the owner of this monopoly to spend millions on completely false advertising, millions of Michiganders are confused. I am talking, of course about Matty Moroun, who with his wife and son are the sole owners of the Ambassador Bridge.

They are billionaires who make a vast amount from their bridge, and don’t want their profits diluted. But the rest of us have an economy to lose if a new bridge isn’t built. The biggest force pushing a new bridge is the government of Canada.

Ottawa wants this bridge so much it has pledged to fund what normally would be Michigan’s costs, mainly, the infrastructure connection to I-75, plus other miscellaneous expenses.

To some, this sounds highly suspicious. If a foreign government wants something so much, there must be a hidden angle. Last week I spent two hours with Roy Norton, Canada’s top diplomat in this part of the world. He is their consul general in Detroit.

His responsibility is primarily economic, and covers a five-state region. But he has far more high-level diplomatic experience that most people who have had his job. He spent four years in Washington as his government’s minster for congressional relations.

Canada sent him here largely to get a new bridge built, because it sees it as essential for the economy of both nations.

I pushed him. “Why do you want this bridge so much?” I asked.  Canadians, he reminded me wryly, are, quote “boring and rational people.”

“We aren’t in the habit of making irresponsible financial commitments,” he said. But simply put, the economies of both Michigan and Ontario depend on heavy automotive trade.

Every month, hundreds of millions worth of components move across the Detroit River, and as of now, the Ambassador Bridge is the only way to get them there. “What would be irresponsible,” Norton said in Traverse City last month, “would be to simply cross our fingers and hope that an eighty-three year old piece of critical infrastructre would enjoy eternal life."

Norton pointed me to a recent study by the non-profit and thoroughly American Center for Automotive Research.

It concluded that the new bridge would create more than seven thousand new permanent jobs and pump three-quarters of a billion in new money into Michigan’s economy, every year.

Governor Snyder knows this. He has already signed an agreement with Canada to build a new bridge, which he says will be unaffected by the outcome of this referendum.

I have been trying hard to find some downside to building this bridge. But the fact is that there isn’t any.  And a constitutional amendment to prevent Michigan’s leaders from improving the state’s infrastructure sounds foolish, in the extreme.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.