Scent of a new bridge

Michigan Farm News

By Paul W. Jackson

Before advertizing and public relations campaigns created artificial scents, a rose was a rose.

It took the eloquence of Shakespeare to ponder the deeper relationship between its smell and its name, but Shakespeare didn’t live in a society constructed by spin.

In today’s deceived world, a DRIC bridge smells suspiciously like dreck, like something that was dredged from the mucky Detroit River bottom and reeks of wrecks and muttered political epithets.

On the other hand, the NITC (pronounced Nit-see) sounds more like the family pet. As acronyms go, it’s nicer. The New International Trade Crossing (NITC) rests better on the tongue than the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC).

The problem is, the structure is one and the same, no matter what it’s called. The only difference is how it’s financed. But depending on who’s speaking, one stinks, and the other sends lovely fragrances gently across the river where noses lift to inhale entrancing beauty and prosperity.

To Michigan farmers – people who know the difference between a rose and what makes it grow – the proposal to build a new bridge across the Detroit River is a chance to stop to smell the possibilities, and it doesn’t matter what you call it. The bridge – at least the one proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder – is a sweet-smelling opportunity to help get Michigan back on its feet, according to Farm Bureau officials.

Debated for years, all under the name DRIC, the NITC bridge’s time has finally come because of creative financing. And while it comes with no small debate, it’s time to let the rose open and be smelled, according to Matt Smego, state lobbyist with Michigan Farm Bureau.

“For all the rhetoric, for all the advertising dollars being spent on spinning this project into the so-called ‘government bridge,’ there are a few things that farmers should give the smell test,” he said. “This bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers nothing. It will open the trade funnel, allowing commerce in ag products and many other goods to flow more smoothly across borders. NITC will be designed to be more efficient, with easier access to highways and shorter delays for international traffic and customs inspections. It will create jobs. Government is not involved with funding or operations. That all smells pretty sweet to most people in the agriculture industry.”

Accusations aired publicly about the bridge, however, would have Michigan citizens holding their noses. An advertising campaign, paid for by the Moroun family, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, the only privately-held border crossing in North America, indicates that the DRIC would cost every Michigan family $194 in taxes. Matthew Moroun, during an interview on the Grand Rapids TV show To the Point, said DRIC could cut his family’s bridge income in half to $300 million per year. The family’s political influence (it reportedly contributed $1.5 million to various causes during the last election) has prompted its cohorts to call the proposed bridge an “expensive and unnecessary make-work project.”

Instead, the family prefers to build its own bridge, adjacent to the present Ambassador Bridge, which is 83 years old, lacks convenient access and egress to highways, takes traffic through the heart of Windsor and nearly 20 traffic lights and, for all practical purposes, is the only game in town when it comes to crossing between Detroit and Windsor.

Bridging the location problem

“Farm Bureau policy supports the basis for the NITC, and no one I’ve spoken with about this issue denies that we need a new bridge,” he said. “We’re not against a new crossing by the Ambassador. But we do believe that a new bridge with better access to highways and upgraded customs checkpoints is necessary to keep international trade moving. A new bridge next to the Ambassador still takes traffic through a maddening city route. Helping ease such problems involved with international trade is vital for agriculture, as well as all the other businesses in Michigan who trade with our biggest trading partner.”

Since 60 percent of Michigan’s ag exports annually are shipped to Canada, totaling $796 million in goods, it’s easy to see why agriculture has an interest in the new project. But farmers would just as easily dismiss the whole idea if it didn’t smell right. And it would be easy for ag to turn up its nose if the initial public relations messages spinning around the airwaves were true.

The fact is, Smego said, that Michigan taxpayers will not be obligated to spend a dime under the plan, which can be found in Senate bills 410 and 411.

First, the bills establish a “New International Trade Crossing” authority. Five governor-appointed members of the authority would forge an international agreement between Michigan and Canada to find a company to build and operate the bridge, customs plazas and other needed infrastructure.

Total cost of bridge construction is estimated at $940 million, none of which Michigan has. Ramps, connections, infrastructure and other ancillary construction costs are on top of that figure. But Michigan won’t have to find the money.

“Taxpayers will not be on the hook” for the project, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley told reporter Rick Albin in an interview for To the Point.

Calley said the deal worked out with Canada prohibits the authority from “taking on any obligation to make Michigan pay” for the project.

Who pays?

Here’s how it works: Canada has agreed to put up $550 million to cover Michigan’s cost for the bridge project. That money, Smego said, has already been approved for use by the state to leverage matching federal highway dollars. But that money is not confined to bridge building. The 4-to-1 match brings $2.2 billion, which can be used on any federally-aided road project in the state.

“That’s an added benefit that goes way beyond the Detroit area,” Smego said. “People all over the state will potentially see benefits of those matching dollars for their own road projects over the next four years.”

Negotiated agreements like that, which are reflected in two Senate bills, keep Michigan’s taxpayers out of the equation, Smego said. Also, the NITC Authority, once established, sets toll rates for each vehicle that crosses the bridge. Those tolls are regulated by the authority similarly to the way private utility companies are regulated by the Public Service Commission.

So who pays? People who pay tolls, Smego said.

“There would be no government involvement in the construction and operation of the bridge, aside from customs and infrastructure inspections, because the construction and operation would be handled by a private company that wins the contract through a bidding process,” he said. “The Moroun family is certainly welcome to put in its bid.”

Indirect language in Farm Bureau policy supports the bridge, including use of private contractors and competitive bidding for road construction and maintenance, a spirit of cooperation between local, state and federal agencies, and a call for adequate funding for state and local road agencies.

“The NITC project fulfills all those policy platforms,” Smego said. “If it all goes according to plan, this is a sweet deal for Michigan farmers and the entire state.”

Only time will tell if Michigan’s public stops to smell the realities of the NITC. If the Senate legislation becomes law, plans could begin soon on what will be a multi-year project that’s expected to create up to 30,000 jobs, 10,000 of which would be for construction. And when it’s all said and done, the scent of new trade will pique the senses of Michigan’s business community and farmers who supply a good deal of what gets traded. It doesn’t matter if it’s corn, sugar beets or roses. The smell of increased trade is sweet to Michigan, no matter what it’s called.