Opinion
8:29 am
Thu December 5, 2013

What's holding things up with the new bridge?

Lessenberry commentary for 12/5/13

We’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit lately, for obvious reasons. Opinions differ, but pretty much everyone agrees on this: There are too few jobs and not enough money. Unemployment is high, the tax base is low. The city is officially bankrupt.

Yet there’s a project out there that should be a huge shot in the arm: The New International Trade Crossing Bridge. Estimates are that it will create at least 10,000 good paying jobs that will last four to five years. Ripple effects from those jobs will create thousands of others, some of which will be permanent. 

Canada is going to pay nearly all the costs of the bridge and all Michigan’s costs, pumping nearly four billion dollars into the economy. Exactly what the doctor ordered. So … what’s holding things up?

For years, the answer to that was Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, who spent millions to successfully prevent the legislature from ever approving a new bridge. But Governor Rick Snyder found a legal way to get around him. And voters overwhelmingly rejected a Moroun-funded constitutional amendment to preserve his monopoly last year.

True, Moroun still has a couple nuisance suits in federal and state courts, but nobody takes those very seriously. And there is still some land to be acquired and final engineering studies to complete. But that’s not what’s really holding things up.

The final obstacle is the need to build a new U.S. Customs plaza, something that will cost about $250 million. Congress would have to appropriate money for it. True, Congress is not in a spending mode, and divided control makes everything harder. But according to Roy Norton, the Canadian consul general, the real problem is the Obama Administration.

President Obama has been a supporter of the Bridge project, and signed the necessary presidential permit to build it last year. But some officials in the Obama administration apparently think Canada should offer to pay for the customs plaza as well. To Canada, that is a little over the top. The bridge will benefit both nations equally. Canada is already picking up all Michigan’s costs.  

Roy Norton, a highly experienced diplomat who has a PhD from Johns Hopkins, says, “We really think our paying fifteen-sixteenths of this project is more than fair.” Hard to disagree with that.

Canada wants President Obama to make a push for the bridge in his next State of the Union speech, and is looking anxiously to see if the customs plaza shows up in next year’s budget. The bridge is a fully bipartisan effort, by the way. The business community knows how much it is needed. 

Detroit is by far the most important trade crossing between the two nations, and one of the biggest in the world. A new bridge would boost everyone’s economy, in both the short and long term.

For all of our sakes, this is something that needs to get done. If there were ever a case where Michigan congressmen of both parties ought to put aside their differences and lobby the president and their colleagues to make this plaza happen, this is it.

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.