Roy Norton: Time for less fiction, more facts in bridge debate

Battle Creek Enquirer

Written By Roy Norton

I read with interest the July 9 column “Troubled Bridge Over Water” by “entertainer” Eric Murray. While more entertainingly written than the multimillion-dollar television campaign to protect the status quo, like those advertisements, Mr. Murray’s piece ignores the facts. In the entertainment world, facts may not matter. In public policy, they should.

After several amusing paragraphs whose objective seemingly is to link Gov. Snyder and Ambassador Bridge owner “Matty” Moroun (apparently in the same way that Simon and Garfunkel are!), the piece stumbles on its first error. Mr. Murray has embraced the cost assertions from those anti-New International Trade Crossing (NITC) TV commercials. The fact is, the bridge (the actual span plus two toll plazas) will cost $1 billion. Not $2 billion. Not $4 billion. And all of that money will be brought to the table by the private sector. It will be repaid to the contractor from tolls. The Canadian government – not Michigan – assumes all liability (Michigan taxpayers pay nothing for the bridge; bear no liability; and, after about 40 years or so, can expect to receive, annually, approximately $50 million in toll revenues). Almost everyone, when acquainted with those facts, concludes that this is a great opportunity -–one not to be lost. But I give Mr. Murray his due; his version is much more entertaining.

Error No. 2 – tolls. While the toll between Queens and the Bronx may be of literary interest, it’s rather irrelevant to travelers and truckers whose objective is to get from the U.S. to Canada and back. The fact is, tolls at the Ambassador Bridge are about the highest for any of the 27 bridge crossings between Canada and the U.S. Which, I suspect, is one of the reasons that all of the top automotive assemblers in North America, major west Michigan firms (including Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek), and Chambers of Commerce and unions across Michigan have endorsed Gov. Snyder’s New International Trade Crossing. Companies that face competition every day tend to acknowledge that honest competition benefits consumers – and underpins a strong capitalist system. Of course, those who don’t face competition tend to want to keep it that way. Hence, the television advertisements against the proposed bridge.

Error No. 3 – “Mr. Moroun is willing to build a new bridge.” Indeed. Trouble is, while the NITC has received all of the environmental approvals it requires to proceed to construction (it’s the “shovel ready” option) – a process that took five years – the notional Ambassador Bridge “twin” has received no approvals. Which means that there are two options: build the NITC, or do nothing, and allow one-quarter of the world’s largest two-way trade relationship to depend, well into the future, on everything working just right every day at one 83-year-old bridge.

Which leads us to Error No. 4. Well, more of an anti-Canada bias really. But also erroneous – from the point of view of what the USA’s real interests are. Mr. Murray appears not to know that the USA enjoys a non-energy trade surplus with Canada (meaning it exports more manufactured goods and services to Canada than it imports from Canada). Fully eight million jobs in the USA depend on trade with Canada. The USA exports more to Canada than it does to all 27 countries of the European Union (their population: more than 500 million; Canada’s population: 34 million). The province of Ontario (14 million people) by itself buys more from the U.S. than the U.S. sells to the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China – combined population almost 3 billion) together. Canada is the No. 1 export destination for the USA, for 35 U.S. states, and especially for Michigan.

I accept that trade and jobs don’t naturally constitute entertaining subject matter. But for those who can’t earn their living providing entertainment, manufacturing (or agriculture, or professional services and logistics) can be pretty important. Canada buys half of everything that Michigan sells to the world. When the Michigan Farm Bureau (and many other agricultural organizations based in this state) endorsed the NITC, they noted that 30 percent of everything grown in Michigan is sold to Canada.

Mr. Murray has a view of trade (in which there are winners and victims) that does not describe the U.S.-Canada relationship. Canada does not compete with the USA on wages. Our economies are fully integrated. Michigan’s Center for Automotive Research notes that 61 percent of the average vehicle that comes off the assembly line in Ontario is U.S. content (and Ford, whom Mr. Murray derides, notes that the average vehicle crosses the border six times – as components are added – before emerging on one side of the border or the other as a finished product, thus making modern and efficient transportation infrastructure particularly important). Most businesses take a keen interest in the economic health of their best customer. It’s an outlook to be encouraged upon everyone participating in the debate about a new bridge.

The bottom line: cross-border trade is growing (Michigan-Canada trade grew an amazing 43 percent in 2010 over 2009). Correspondingly, Ambassador Bridge traffic grew in 2010 over 2009. When the governments of Canada and Ontario joined the U.S. government in bailing out GM and Chrysler, it was with a conviction that the auto industry, in this region, could become strong again. Those investments are proving to have been wise. Unless, of course, that industry – and others – end up being handicapped by cross-border congestion (or worse, calamity).

The NITC is about win/win. It’s about prudent planning for the future. It’s about “economic gardening” (to use one of Governor Snyder’s terms) – in the sense that the NITC will foster an attractive investment climate and create the conditions for companies in the U.S. and Canada to prosper. All, in this case, at no cost to Michigan.

Mr. Murray could equally have riffed on a couple of other Simon and Garfunkel songs. “Old Friends” (the governments of the USA, Canada, Michigan and Ontario), in proposing this visionary initiative, have been trying to “Keep the Customer” (users of cross-border transportation) satisfied. That song, of course, is about persistent efforts encountering nothing but “slander and libel.” The proposed bridge over the waters shared by the U.S. and Canada isn’t ‘troubled’ – but the truth certainly has been assaulted over recent months. Perhaps the debate can now move from the entertainment phase to the factual one?

Roy Norton is Canada’s consul general to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.