The Big Stall: Critics try to swamp bridge proposal by distorting truth

Detroit Free Press


Gov. Rick Snyder is losing momentum on one of his top priorities: Building a publicly owned international crossing in Detroit. Unless he can take back the initiative during the summer break, he faces his first major defeat in the Legislature.

But it would be a defeat draped in silliness and deceit, and driven by an aggressive misinformation campaign funded by the Ambassador Bridge company.

And the cost would be borne by Michigan taxpayers, who’ll lose an extraordinary opportunity to create thousands of jobs and to meet — at no cost to themselves — the economic and transportation needs of Detroit’s international border for the rest of the 21st Century.

Snyder has virtually no hope now of getting Senate Bills 410 and 411 passed before summer recess. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, the bills would authorize Michigan and Canada to create a governmental authority and build the New International Trade Crossing, two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge, with private financing. The $2.1-billion crossing, from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River, would compete with the privately owned Ambassador.

With Republicans generally opposed and many Democrats holding out for a deal, Snyder doesn’t have the votes. An informal whip count last week showed only one firm vote for NITC in the Senate Republican caucus — and 17 against. A Senate vote now would just make building a bipartisan coalition tougher down the road. Can anyone imagine this happening to former Gov. John Engler?

Spoiling for a fight

Nearly three months ago, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun told a Free Press reporter that he couldn’t stop the governor. Instead of throwing in the towel, however, Moroun was performing a dazzling rope-a-dope, distracting and disarming his opponent in hopes of sending him to the canvas. That’s where Snyder is headed now unless he laces up his gloves, or takes them off.

Ongoing hearings convened by state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, who chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee, seem calculated to perpetuate the bridge controversy rather than to dispel it. The hearings have left many with the erroneous impression that the accusations Moroun levels in his ubiquitous prime-time TV spots have yet to be answered definitively; in fact, those distortions have long since been refuted (see “Fact and fiction” at right).

Despite Moroun’s continuing claims that the proposed public bridge would cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year, private investors would unequivocally bear the risks. The proposed legislation would prohibit the state from assuming any liability for bridge costs, or for paying back the $550 million Canada has offered to front Michigan for the construction of bridge approaches in southwest Detroit. If toll projections don’t support paying off the bonds, the bridge won’t be built.

Traffic concerns

Overall, traffic across the river is still down since 9/11, but truck traffic is rising and will continue to rise. Furthermore, nothing Moroun can do at his Ambassador site can satisfy the region’s need for a separate crossing if a natural disaster, accident, maintenance emergency or attack shuts the Ambassador down.

Kowall has said he is skeptical of the public bridge proposal, but hearings will probably continue this week, including a possible site visit to Detroit. Delays, of course, benefit Moroun. With a high-profile advertising campaign, he has managed to befuddle or buy off most of the Republican caucus.

Snyder has done an adequate job of extolling the benefits of a publicly owned bridge. Now he must make it clear that Michigan has no real choice. If it doesn’t build the bridge, the pivotal Detroit border will remain stuck with a single, aging crossing owned by a private, for-profit company.

Here is the most important fact in the debate: Due to traffic and environmental concerns in downtown Windsor, the Canadians won’t grant Moroun the permits needed to twin the Ambassador, especially if he plans to use both spans simultaneously. Canadians also generally oppose putting another major international crossing in the hands of a private, for-profit company. Canada has already invested in improvements to connect the proposed downriver crossing to Canada’s Highway 401, a main artery running to the East Coast.

Canada’s perspective

Canadian Consul General Roy Norton repeated his nation’s objections to the Ambassador plan in testimony before the Senate Economic Development Committee, arguing that twinning the Ambassador would create untenable traffic jams.

How much plainer can Canada make it? It will not allow the Ambassador to replace its 80-year-old bridge — period, end of story.

Thus, the consequences for not building a second bridge now are potentially disastrous. The question of redundancy, which a single bridge approach can never answer, is as important as capacity. Even a single-day shutdown of the Ambassador could stop the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of auto parts and other trade.

Mickey Blashfield, who handles governmental relations for Moroun, said the Ambassador can continue to do maintenance work without shutting down. He also said capacity won’t be a problem for more than a decade. “There is no crisis impending,” he told the Free Press editorial page.

Maybe, but projects like an international crossing are built not to handle the needs of the next decade or two, but of the next century. Even if the NITC project moves forward as planned, with construction taking four or five years, the second crossing would not open until 2016 or 2017. Delaying the project would only boost construction costs and undermine the state’s fragile economic recovery, while risking the loss of Canada’s offer.

What’s good for the people

Competition at the border may not be good for Moroun, but it’s good for the public. The hundreds of thousands of dollars he and associates have doled out to rally lawmakers in both parties against the span have placed Moroun’s private interests above the public’s.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a business operating a public bridge, but the behavior of Moroun and his supporters during this campaign raises serious questions about the ability of a private operator to act in the broadest public interest.

During the next two months, Snyder must figure out how to make the deals he must make to get the votes he needs and, if necessary, call out Republican colleagues who have essentially become Moroun’s water carriers. In doing so, he may have to, like Engler, inspire more fear than affection. Snyder will have to toughen up, or watch Moroun continue to win the battle of the bridges.