A New Detroit River Bridge: Bump in the Bridge Bills

Oct 20, 2011

So what happened yesterday?

For months, everybody interested in the possibility of a new bridge over the Detroit River had waited for the State Senate Economic Development Committee to take a vote.

Not that this would settle much of anything -- except to decide whether to let the full senate decide whether to vote. Most of the committee members have taken political contributions from the owner of the ancient Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun.

He wants to stop any new bridge, by any means necessary. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville calculated he had just enough votes to get the bridge out of committee.

Others weren’t so sure. Then, chaos. Just before they were going to vote, up popped the Democrats, who surprised everyone by presenting a substitute bill that would do something for the Delray community in the neighborhood where the bridge would be built.

Mike Kowall, the committee chair, angrily said he’d been blindsided, abruptly adjourned the meeting, and walked out.

That left spectators, some of whom had driven from Detroit to witness the vote, stunned and disappointed. My first reaction is that the Democrats had screwed things up. That they had likely e managed to destroy any chance for a new bridge by clumsily making a set of last-minute demands that had no chance of being accepted.

But now I’m not quite so pessimistic. If you look at the history of large projects that involve both the public and private sectors, there’s almost always some provision made for community benefits.

In this case, State Senators Tupac Hunter and Virgil Smith, both Detroit Democrats, want the bill to require those contractors who work on the bridge to provide some community benefits for the surrounding and mostly impoverished Delray area.

Some Republicans and lobbyists for the Ambassador Bridge are already sneering at this idea as “welfare by another name.“

But in fact this is pretty standard practice, and as I understand it, what the Democrats are asking for here is less than what  Republicans agreed to in the legislation that authorized Detroit’s casinos back in the 90s.

What’s different about what happened yesterday may have been a function of term limits, and the increasingly partisan rancor between the parties.

In the old days, this stuff likely would have been worked out before the committee ever took a vote. But my understanding is that the Democrats have been negotiating with the Snyder administration.

One way or another, the bridge bills almost certainly will get to the Senate floor. Then, the really hard part starts. If they are ever going to pass, it will only happen with the near-solid support of the Democrats plus a minority of Republicans. Everyone knows that.

If the bills get through the Senate, then the process starts all over with the House. This is likely to be the toughest legislative challenge Rick Snyder is ever going to face, and he knows it.

In the final analysis, this is a battle for common sense and Michigan’s future, against the interests of one family with an almost unlimited ability to donate money to politicians.

The outcome is uncertain, but one thing is very clear. If the governor eventually wins, they should also pass a law preventing anybody from ever saying he is a non-politician again.