Editorial: Bridge fight has gone on too long

Gov. Rick Snyder should not still be herding cats to get the new bridge built across the Detroit River. After fighting with the Legislature for two years, Snyder, in 2012, managed to work around lawmakers to forge an agreement with the Canadian government to build the Detroit River International Crossing.

Most of the opposition came from his own party. Republican lawmakers, well lubricated by campaign donations from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, fell back on the specious argument that a bridge should not be built with public money.

Of course, nearly every bridge in the country, including in Michigan, has been publicly built. Maintaining avenues of commerce is a core responsibility of government.

Still, Moroun financed an extravagant marketing campaign to convince the public he is willing to build the bridge with his own money. But Moroun never had, and still doesn’t have any intention to operate two bridges. His plan was to build a replacement span for the Ambassador Bridge.

But he hasn’t given up the fight to block the second span, as witnessed by the destructive action this week by Republican senators to insert language in a transportation bill that prevents the state from buying any land for the bridge.

Michigan will not spend any of its own money on land purchases. But the Department of Transportation will have to condemn the needed property, and will have to be the actual purchaser of the land on behalf of the Canadians and private interests, who will front the funds.

The obstructionism by the Senate is unjustified, and comes at a time when the bridge already is trying to clear key hurdles.

The project needs $250 million from the federal government for the customs plaza — the only major expense that will be incurred by U.S. taxpayers. Canada has agreed to pay Michigan’s share of the $2.1 billion construction cost up front, and will be reimbursed with toll revenues.

Canada considers the bridge so important that it is also considering paying for the customs plaza if the Obama administration doesn’t approve the funding.

This battle should have been over long ago. The project is a good deal for Michigan, and for the United States. We’re getting a bridge at basically no cost to taxpayers.

That span should make Detroit the premier crossing for trade with Canada. The spin-off benefits are enormous, including the opportunity for logistics development and the attraction of manufacturers who need to be close to the Canadian market.

Lawmakers, particularly on the GOP side, have done Moroun’s bidding for too long.

Work is progressing to the point where land purchases could be made this year. Canada is going to extraordinary lengths to keep the project moving.

Its commitment should not be met with more gamesmanship on the U.S. side of the river.

When the transportation bill hits the House, lawmakers should strip out the land purchasing ban and get this project moving.

Originally posted in the Detroit News

Federal officials work to fund customs plaza for new Detroit River bridge

By Eric D. Lawrence

Federal officials are working on securing funds for a customs plaza to support the planned New International Trade Crossing, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said today.

“One of my responsibilities as secretary of Homeland Security is … to promote lawful trade and travel,” Johnson said. “We are actively looking for ways to fund a potential customs plaza along with the construction of the bridge. Once the bridge is built obviously you need a customs plaza to support it.”

Johnson, who was surrounded by local, state, federal and Canadian officials and other stakeholders, spoke during a news conference following a roundtable discussion about the U.S. northern border. The discussion follows the introduction of legislation by U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., that seeks to prioritize funding for federal customs plazas at trade crossings.

When asked if plaza funding could happen happen this year, Johnson said that “it’s something we’re actively working on.”

The bridge, which is being paid for by Canada, is widely supported by business and government interests in Southeast Michigan and across the border but has faced opposition by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge.

Johnson, who is touring sites in Detroit and Port Huron today, told a crowd at the Detroit Regional Chamber office that Canadian authorities have done their part to make the new crossing a reality.

“It is up to us in the federal government to do our part as well,” Johnson said.

“The Northern Border and trade crossings in the state of Michigan have the potential to make our region a transportation and logistics hub in the Midwest if we make the necessary infrastructure investments now,” Peters said. “We should be allocating resources where the economic utilization will be greatest, where the investment will create jobs, increase exports and grow our middle class. Secretary Johnson visiting Michigan is an important step.”

The issue of the customs plaza has been a sore spot for those in the Port Huron area, which has been in line for customs plaza funding for years.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow acknowledged that in the case of Port Huron, “frankly, they had the rug pulled out from under them.”

But she reiterated the importance of the crossing in Detroit.

“This (new) bridge is critical … for security, for jobs, for economic development,” Stabenow said. “We have a commitment from our Canadian partners … We have to do our part on our side of the bridge to make sure that when it’s time to do the plaza that the funding is there.”

Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press

Did state’s Detroit EM team use its clout to stymie Moroun bridge?

By Todd Spangler

WASHINGTON — An Ambassador Bridge official said Thursday that a member of Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s team told him last fall that the state had made it clear it did not want the city selling rights to the bridge company that could allow it to build a twin span to replace the 85-year-old bridge.

If true, the declaration made by Detroit International Bridge Co. President Dan Stamper in federal court in Washington could raise questions about whether anyone in state government used the city’s financial crisis — and the state’s intervention — as a pretext to keep a second span from being built.

State officials did not immediately return a request for comment. Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Orr last year as emergency manager, has been a wholehearted supporter of a rival span to be built over the Detroit River to Windsor that Ambassador Bridge officials are trying to block.

Stamper’s declaration was submitted to U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who concluded a hearing requested by bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun to stop the Coast Guard from issuing a permit to let the rival New International Trade Crossing, or NITC, move forward.

She did not rule on the request for an injunction but is expected to do so in the days or weeks to come. On Wednesday, she had chided Moroun’s son, Matthew Moroun, the company’s vice chairman, for not spending enough to simply buy the rights needed for a twin span from the City of Detroit.

The written declaration submitted Thursday wasn’t immediately available, but the Ambassador Bridge’s lawyer, Hamish Hume, described it to Collyer as Stamper’s version of an Oct. 22 conversation he had with Gary Brown, a former City Council member and chief operating officer for Detroit under Orr.

Stamper said Brown told him that politics aside, an easement over Riverside Park next to the Detroit River could be sold to the bridge company but that “Lansing” — presumably meaning some person, branch or agency in state government — “had instructed the city not to sell the easement,” Hume said.

The city’s refusal to sell the Moroun family an easement to “air rights” over Riverside Park has been a key reason the Coast Guard hasn’t issued a permit for a second span rising over the park that Ambassador Bridge officials say they want to build to replace their aging one.

Bridge company lawyers argue state and federal agencies are not playing fair with their proposal, in favor of the rival NITC, which is to be paid for by Canada. As the Free Press reported, Matthew Moroun said Wednesday if the NITC gets its permit before his company does, it is “the end of the race.”

Hume said Stamper provided the declaration in response to Collyer’s questions to Matthew Moroun on Wednesday, and said lawyers hadn’t brought it up before because they didn’t want the court “to conclude we won’t get the easement” despite opposition in the city to sell it to the bridge company.

“We will get the easement. But we have to work through the politics of Detroit,” Hume said. He added that, in another declaration, Matthew Moroun told Collyer he had sent an offer of $5 million for the air rights to the city Thursday.

Asked about Stamper’s declaration, Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling, said he had “no information about (the) veracity of Mr. Stamper’s comments” and said only that Orr and his staff “have been focused on restructuring the city.”

Brian Collins, of the U.S. Justice Department, argued that the bridge company’s failure to get a permit has no relation to whether the NITC gets one and that, in any case, it would be premature to issue an injunction since no NITC permit has been issued. He added, however, that the Coast Guard’s requirement that private bridge owners have easements in hand before providing a permit is appropriate.

But the question of whether someone at the state could have contacted Orr’s office or the city and advised against selling the easement could be an important one, said Collyer, especially in a case like this one, where the state is party to a deal to build a rival bridge with Canada picking up the tab.

“Is that acting as a sovereign (state government),” she asked, “or is that acting as a competitor?”

Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press

Moroun seeks injunction that threatens to block DRIC bridge for years

By Dave Battagello

Owners of the Ambassador Bridge should know within a week or two whether their latest courtroom attempt to stop construction of the planned $1-billion Detroit River bridge will be successful.

The bridge company is seeking an injunction in U.S. District Court to stop the U.S. Coast Guard from granting a permit for the Detroit River International Crossing project.

Owner Matty Moroun was in attendance for the hearing Wednesday in Washington while his son Matthew testified: “this is the end of the race” for his company to stop the DRIC bridge, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“If they can get all their approvals — and this is the final one — before we do, they’ve won.”

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer indicated she will hand down her ruling within days, according to the Free Press.

The Coast Guard permit is largely related to navigational purposes, whether shipping lanes are impeded or there would be wildlife impacts. It is a lesser permit compared to the U.S. Presidential permit and Canadian federal government cabinet approval which have already been granted to the DRIC project.

The bridge company has asked the court for the injunction and to put a stop construction of the looming competing crossing until all Moroun court challenges against the DRIC project are finalized.

Among ongoing court actions by the Morouns against DRIC are a NAFTA challenge, federal lawsuits on both sides of the border and state challenge in Michigan.

The implication should Collyer grant the injunction on that basis is the downriver crossing project – which will link the industrial communities of Brighton Beach and Delray – could be delayed for years.

Lawyers for the bridge company argued the Coast Guard has been treating the Morouns unfairly since they have been shut out from securing their own permit from the same federal agency for their proposed twin span.

Final approval of a Coast Guard permit for the Ambassador Bridge expansion proposal has been on hold after it was learned the company does not have all the property it requires in Detroit – namely city-owned Riverside Park – in order to start construction.

City officials in Detroit have largely favoured construction of the DRIC bridge and so far refused to sell Riverside Park to the Morouns.

The Canadian government has been anxious to launch bridge construction. It has already budgeted $630 million this year to start property acquisition in Detroit and utility relocation.

An official with Transport Canada did not wish to comment on Moroun’s court challenge in Washington.

“It’s a matter before the courts, so it would be inappropriate for us to comment,” said spokesman Mark Butler.

Ottawa has also agreed to pay the state of Michigan’s share for the project of $550 million. Along with a private partner, Canada is essentially paying full costs for the bridge and feeder roads under for the DRIC project. The federal government expects to recoup its investment through tolls.

The overall cost is estimated to be over $2 billion – with expectations Washington will fund the U.S. customs plaza in Detroit.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has so far not budgeted the required $250 million for the customs plaza – another holdup before construction can start.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is coming to Detroit on Friday to tour local border facilities and participate in a roundtable discussion on U.S- Canada border infrastructure.

Originally posted in the Windsor Star

Canada-U.S. bridge project comes under attack from rivals in American courtroom

WASHINGTON – An attempt to stall a major bridge project between Canada and the United States is now in the hands of an American judge after two days of hearings that wrapped up Thursday.

Judge Rosemary Collyer of the Washington, D.C., District Court promised to consider a request for an injunction against the project in a case she acknowledged as complex.

“This is not easy for me,” Collyer said as she concluded the hearing, promising to take her time to sort out the various components of a case she described as a mess. She did not speculate on when she might issue a ruling.

The case is the latest twist in the years-long dispute pitting political authorities against the private company that owns the existing Ambassador Bridge, the aging Windsor-Detroit structure that handles nearly one-third of Canada-U.S. trade.

The private company says its effort to build an additional span is being thwarted by bureaucratic red tape from governments in both countries, which favour the public project.

The Detroit International Bridge Co. is working to block the public project from moving forward. It claims to have franchise rights stemming from the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Now it’s asking the court system to intervene before the rival bridge gets its last major U.S. permit — which would set the stage for construction to begin once it gets funding for a U.S. customs plaza.

It’s seeking an injunction that would stop the U.S. Coast Guard from issuing a key permit for the New International Trade Crossing, which would be built almost entirely with Canadian public money.

The very notion that Canada was funding the project drew some barbs from the judge Thursday. She appeared to question how a bridge paid for by a foreign country could claim to have eminent-domain rights and expropriate private homes on the Michigan side.

“(The State of) Michigan can exercise eminent domain with Canadian money?” she asked rhetorically.

“It’s going to be a Canadian bridge. We think of it as the Detroit-Windsor bridge. It’s really the Windsor-Detroit bridge… Michigan doesn’t have any blood in this.”

A day earlier, Collyer essentially brushed off the Canadian legal representation in the courtroom, suggesting they had no business being involved.

“To be perfectly frank, I was astonished that Canada thought it needed to jump in,” the judge said. “Why don’t we not worry about Canada right now?”

The court was then shown slides demonstrating a drop in traffic since the 1990s on the Ambassador Bridge, amid the decline in manufacturing over the last decade.

It only makes sense to build a new span if there’s no rival bridge eating away at toll revenues, said Matthew Moroun, the son of bridge baron Matty Moroun.

If the public project goes ahead, there’s no economic case for a new private Ambassador span, the younger Moroun said in an interview outside the courtroom.

The company resents having to spend at least $22 million per year to maintain the old bridge when it could be completing a twin span right now, in order to be able to shut down the existing one for major repairs, he said.

“We’d like to build our twin span. We’ve been trying to build it for 10 years. The governments have been blocking us for 10 years,” Moroun said.

“We’re throwing money into costly repairs that we could be throwing into a brand new bridge.”

Moroun acknowledged why governments would want their own bridge in such a vital trade corridor. But the Ambassador has done a perfectly good job for more than 75 years, he argued.

“And we haven’t used any taxpayers’ money, either.”

Roy Norton, Canada’s former consul-general to Detroit, estimated that the Morouns would lose about $30 million in toll revenues each year should the new crossing be built.

They have consistently tried to derail the project, but likely won’t succeed, Norton predicted.

“It’s a rational economic decision — if not a very public-spirited one — to invest a chunk of that $30 million in trying to perpetuate the monopoly.”

From the Global Post

Homeland Security chief to visit Michigan to discuss border security

By Todd Spangler

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Gary Peters said today U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will visit Michigan in the near future to discuss security along the Canadian border — and the prospects for a new customs plaza at a proposed Detroit River bridge.

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said Johnson accepted his invitation to visit Michigan to discuss “the importance of constructing proposed customs plazas at high-volume trade crossings like the Detroit-Windsor border.”

Peters sponsored legislation to devote funding to high-volume border crossings like the one at Detroit. The Canadian government has promised to pay for the majority of a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor but supporters say the federal government’s refusal to commit to paying to build a new customs plaza on the American side has been a hold up for the project.

The Free Press has reported that a new customs plaza for Detroit — costing as much as $250 million — would have to leap in front of other projects around the U.S. in order to get built. Johnson’s support could be key to making that happen.

Peters said Johnson accepted his invitiation but has not yet said when he might visit Michigan.

“I look forward to welcoming Secretary Johnson to our great state so that we can have a productive discussion about constructing and expanding customs plazas at critical sites like the New International Trade Crossing,” Peters said. “Canada remains one of our most important trading partners, and projects like these will expand our international cooperation and commerce and create thousands of jobs here in Michigan.”

Peters’ legislation could also help funding for a customs plaza expansion needed at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, he said. So far, the Republican-controlled House has yet to schedule a hearing on Peters’ bill, though that legislation could also run afoul of executive branch agencies, like Johnson’s, which want to decide which projects deserve funding first.

The proposed New International Trade Crossing calls for a six-lane bridge spanning the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor. The Canadian government has agreed to fund construction and land acquisition of the $2.1-billion project to be repaid by tolls.

Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press

 

Why is Obama administration blocking Detroit River bridge?

By Michael Barone

Why isn’t the Obama administration willing to finance the customs plaza for the new international bridge over the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario? That’s a question raised by this article in the Wall Street Journal.

As the Journal notes, the government of Canada has agreed to pay, as part of a public-private partnership, about $3.65 billion for building the bridge, including a $550 million link with Interstate 75 in Detroit. The new bridge would provide an alternative for the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which was opened in 1929. Yet the Obama administration isn’t ponying up $250 million to build a customs plaza.

The terms and conditions under which bridges are built across the U.S.-Canada border, under a 1970s law, are negotiated by state governors with the federal government of Canada. This deal was negotiated by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and favorable terms were obtained in part because this crossing accounts for one-quarter of U.S.-Canada commerce. GM and Chrysler auto supply chains cross the border routinely; this was encouraged by the 1965 auto parts free trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada, the predecessor to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Should the 84-year-old Ambassador Bridge suddenly become unavailable, Canada’s economy would take a sharp hit — hence the Canadian’s willingness to raise or spend most of the money to build a new bridge.

Why is the Obama administration withholding the $250 million for the customs plaza? One possible reason: to propitiate Matty Maroun, the Michigan billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge and profits handsomely from tolls and concessions. He has financed Michigan ballot propositions designed to stop funding the new bridge, to which he remains strongly opposed. Or perhaps the Obama administration is indulging in a fit of pique against the government of Canada, which keeps pressing for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been pending now for five years (longer than the time from Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Germany in 1945). Or maybe the administration is just letting this project fall through the cracks through sheer incompetence or inertia.

President Obama likes to talk about funding new infrastructure projects. But here, on a project almost all of whose funding will be provided or arranged by the government of Canada, the Obama administration isn’t providing the relatively small amount for the customs plaza. Democratic and Republican members of the Michigan delegation shouldn’t be the only people asking why.

Originally posted in the Washington Examiner