DRIC permeates Mackinac; Big 4, candidates state cases

A proposed new Detroit River bridge was the subject of discussion, debate and lobbying during last week’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

With the state Senate preparing for a second week of committee debate on legislation that would green-light Michigan’s end of the joint U.S.-Canadian project, gubernatorial candidates staked out their position on the proposed bridge.

Chrysler Group L.L.C. CEO Sergio Marchionne also reiterated his company’s support for the publicly owned span during the Detroit Regional Chamber‘s event that attracts business and civic leaders and policymakers to the island.

The Michigan Department of Transportation on Friday released revenue estimates it previously said it planned to keep secret to protect the competitive bid process on the $5.3 billion Detroit River International Crossing that would link Ontario’s Highway 401 and I-75 in Detroit.

The agency estimates a new bridge would collect $60 million in toll revenue its first year based on a predicted daily average of 18,700 cars and trucks — a traffic estimate criticized as overly optimistic by some infrastructure analysts and by the privately owned Detroit International Bridge Co. that runs the Ambassador Bridge.

That bridge is believed to generate $60 million annually right now.

MDOT also promised that the bridge cost would be borne by the private sector and Canada, and Michigan taxpayers wouldn’t be exposed to construction costs or any risk if the project defaulted because traffic estimates failed to match reality.

Tolls are supposed to pay for the bridge’s financing debt and maintenance costs. It would be owned by both nations but operated by the private sector under the current plan.

The private bridge company, owned by Grosse Pointe trucking industrialist Manuel Moroun, says that building DRIC about two miles from the Ambassador Bridge is unneeded and unfair government competition. He has ongoing litigation opposing DRIC and also related to his own stalled effort to twin his bridge, something opposed by Canada.

The bridge company on Friday said its May traffic was up 18 percent compared to a year ago, but noted that May 2009 was its worst crossing number since 1984.

DRIC’s backers have predicted the new span would eventually siphon about 34 percent of all the border traffic between Detroit and Port Huron. MDOT officials have said they believe the bridge company earns enough money that it can afford to lose some to a state-controlled crossing.

The opposition to DRIC or its enabling legislation is shared, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, by most of candidates for governor.

Republican Attorney General Mike Cox said at the conference that he worries the bridge could fail financially and would hurt the state’s bond rating.

“I don’t rule out a public bridge, but we don’t know enough about it right now,” said Cox, who said he has accepted campaign contributions from the Ambassador Bridge owners.

State Sen. Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, who also has taken Ambassador Bridge contributions, said he believes another bridge is less of a need than other problems in Michigan.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, said he favors a public-private partnership to build a second bridge, using private money, but said it’s just a piece of a transportation hub that Southeast Michigan needs to form through investments in additional areas. He said he’s taken Ambassador Bridge owner financial contributions.

Republican Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder said Michigan “should be a transportation hub,” but he has questions that need to be answered about the public-private partnership model. He said he hasn’t taken money from any special interests.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat, said he opposes the DRIC-related legislation as written, but thinks there is a need for a second span. He and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said they have received money from the Ambassador Bridge owners, and Bouchard said that “if we’ve got a private sector investor that’s willing to build the bridge, let’s take our money, time and investment elsewhere.

Only House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who supported the House-passed legislation on May 26, favors DRIC and said the risk will be on the private sector. He believes he may have taken donations from the Ambassador Bridge in the past.

Chrysler’s Marchionne said the new span is critical to Chrysler’s just-in-time supply chain that includes 1,300 shipments and 2,000 cars and trucks crossing the Detroit-Windsor border every day.

“The need … is widely acknowledged. I want to make it clear that Chrysler strongly supports the DRIC” because it adds “necessary redundancy” to the current Ambassador Bridge as well as better access linking Canadian and Michigan highways.

DRIC proponents say the bridge is needed to create construction jobs and create or protect other jobs, to bolster trade and provide border capacity redundancy in case the other crossings went out of service.

The issue also was raised in the annual “Big 4” discussion among Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano and Macomb Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Gieleghem. All expressed support for DRIC.

Patterson said he favors the DRIC because Windsor is unlikely to accept a second Ambassador Bridge span in its downtown area, “and if it’s not going to do it downtown, it’s either DRIC or (another bridge) in Buffalo. … I hope we can settle it soon. I love Matty, but he’s got a monopoly. Who wouldn’t want to protect a multibillion dollar monopoly? Why would you want a competitor?”

Added Ficano: “The Moroun family has legitimate concerns, but you can’t go against the Canadian government.”

“We all favor DRIC,” Bing said. “It will create 6,000 permanent jobs and ancillary jobs. He (Moroun) doesn’t want that bridge, but we’ve got to think beyond the individual entrepreneur and do what’s best.”

Said Gieleghem: “People are saying Michigan can’t afford it, but it needs to be looked at as an investment and about turning this region into a transportation and logistics hub.”

Crain’s reporters Amy Lane and Tom Henderson contributed to this story.

Bill Shea: (313) 446-1626, bshea@crain.com