Fiat’s Marchionne throws support to DRIC plan

Fiat-Chrysler chief calls proposed bridge project ‘imperative’

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler Group LLC and its Italian partner Fiat SpA, took on a new role Thursday as outspoken Michiganian in a pointedly political speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

Marchionne, who jets between Auburn Hills and Turin, Italy, every week with little time to embrace his new Michigan home, expressed concern for the state while calling on government to ensure smooth cross-border trade between Detroit and Windsor.

“My purpose here this evening is to talk to you of the prospects we at Chrysler see for the global auto industry, how our alliance with Fiat can contribute to reshaping it, and how we can work in partnership with the state of Michigan for mutual advantage,” Marchionne said.

A prime example: the proposed Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), which would add a second bridge between Detroit and Windsor. The DRIC was approved last week by the Michigan House of Representatives but could face a rough passage through the Senate.

“I want to make it clear that Chrysler strongly supports the proposed DRIC,” Marchionne said. “This proposed new crossing would add necessary redundancy and unimpeded access from Ontario’s highways to Michigan’s interstates.”

On the line for Chrysler: 1,300 shipments and 2,000 vehicles daily, plus hundreds of employees who cross the border for work.

“Smooth crossing is essential to our just-in-time manufacturing enterprise,” said Marchionne, who holds dual Canadian and Italian citizenship, and attended the University of Windsor.

“Engines made in Trenton or stampings from Warren or Sterling Heights cross the border daily for use at assembly plants in Ontario.”

Industrywide, $100 million in goods crosses the border at Detroit daily, he said. Adding a second bridge is a $1.8 billion investment in the Detroit-Windsor area that would create 10,000 construction jobs in Michigan and 30,000 indirect jobs in the state and Windsor.

“It is imperative that this new crossing be completed as soon as possible,” he said, commending state representatives who supported the DRIC, and urging the Michigan Senate to do the same.

Marchionne also called for government help to establish the infrastructure to make fuel more available for vehicles powered by compressed natural gas.

Fiat has a line of vehicles that run on natural gas and Chrysler is exploring applications for the technology, he said. One solution might be home units so customers could refill their cars from their garage.

“This project needs adequate attention and needs to become a priority in federal and state political agendas,” Marchionne said. “It is the most effective solution, in terms of costs and timing, to lessen this country’s reliance on oil, especially foreign oil, while delivering a significant reduction in emissions.”

Such moves are in the interests of all the stakeholders, he said, noting the parallel paths of Chrysler and Michigan.

“Skeptics had foreseen dire futures for both of us,” he said. “We have all heard predictions that Chrysler would be relegated to the dustbin of history, and that Michigan’s glory days are in the rear-view mirror.”

Marchionne disputes such views, and repeated past comments that it can take a crisis to stir change. The trick is to ensure that when prosperity returns, complacency does not undo all the efforts.