View bridge in a bigger picture

Crain’s Detroit Business

by Mary Kramer

My mom and the over-80 set she hangs with at her retirement community had a question for me: What is the deal with the bridge? Should they worry about it?

In a word, I said, no.

But that’s the result of saturating TV channels with commercials that scare 80-year-olds about saddling their kids and grandkids with a big debt, courtesy of the state of Michigan.

Manuel “Matty” Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, has tried everything to protect his turf against a proposed public-private partnership crossing to be built farther downriver from his bridge.

He thought he would win in court; he didn’t. (His company’s president is facing a contempt-of-court hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court next month.)

He thought he could buy lawmakers by spreading a lot of contributions around. (Don’t bet against Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.)

Next, Moroun threw money into the court of public opinion with ads that confuse the facts. (Like whether Michigan taxpayers would be on the hook for a new bridge if tolls don’t bring in enough revenue to pay for the construction and operation. They won’t.)

Keith Crain, my boss and editor-in-chief of Crain’s Detroit Business, sees this as a private sector vs. public sector issue. And he’s in Moroun’s corner on that score.

But we’ve agreed to disagree on this one.

Canada is our biggest trading partner. Canada is putting a lot of investment in its Halifax port, which competes with more-crowded Eastern seaboard ports in the United States. Cargo bound for the U.S. will come straight through to Detroit — increasing the traffic here.

And Canada — along with just about anybody who knows anything about logistics and trade, including automakers and elected pols like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson — wants the new bridge.

What’s wrong with the old one, you ask? It’s 80 years old and eventually will need to be replaced. Even Moroun has said he’d build a replacement span.

Windsor does not want more trucks traveling through residential streets where they travel today. Windsor has grown up and around the bridge over the past 80 years.

And it’s highly unlikely the Canadian government will approve a new span for Moroun. Ask yourself: Would you like idling semis belching exhaust near your home or business 24 hours a day?

The new international crossing would link directly to Windsor’s major highway that links the city to Toronto and all the way to Halifax. A private company would build and operate the new bridge; public investment would be in the ramps and approaches on both sides — and Canada has agreed to pay for Michigan’s share.

It’s a good deal. Why more Republicans don’t believe it is beyond me.

In fact, they should look at the big picture. Michigan’s international border is a huge asset. Don’t stop with a new bridge. Expand support and investment in other infrastructure, like a new rail tunnel under the river that can accommodate stacked containers, and an intermodal freight facility on our side of the bridge.

The Engineering Society of Detroit is also looking at the big picture and has issued recommendations for transforming Michigan into a global freight hub. That report can be found at http://www.esdinstitute.net.

Something tells me Snyder is thinking large too. This is a chance for Michigan to be on the North American map in a big way.