Say what?: Deconstructing Macomb County’s New International Trade Crossing town hall meeting

By Jeff T. Wattrick |

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and two Macomb County state representatives held a town hall last night in Clinton Township about the New International Trade Crossing, and just based. Based on the Macomb Daily’s coverage of the event, there’s a lot of nonsense requiring a thorough deconstruction.

Fuzzy math

July 29, Macomb Daily: [The Regional Chamber’s lobbyist Brad] Williams said the new bridge would not cost Michigan taxpayers a dime as Canada has pledged to pay Michigan’s $550 million share of the $4 billion project.

The Macomb Daily’s $4 billion estimate for the NITC project is, to be charitable, strange. NITC proponents talk about a $900 million-$1 billion cost. The Detroit International Bridge Company—NITC’s strongest opponent—says the NITC will cost $2 billion. So how did the Macomb Daily manage to double the high-end estimate?

One way to do that is to include Canada’s 401 highway expansion plan that includes a connection to the NITC. However, that project is not part of the proposed binational NITC authority’s responsibility, and its cost is irrelevant to U.S.-side policy considerations because it doesn’t affect our costs or ability to collect toll revenue.

Simple solutions for complex issues

July 29, Macomb Daily: John Johnson, president of the Gratiot Avenue Business Association, said he doesn’t trust the government to keep its end of the financing agreement, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

“I have a problem with the government keeping its word. Look at what they’ve done to the film industry. Show me a $2 billion project where the taxpayers didn’t end up paying for it in the long run,” Johnson said.

First off, the pro-film tax credit people can be the whiniest whiners in whiny town. All budgeted film tax credits were paid. The state decided the program’s benefits did not outweigh its costs, and they cut it moving forward. That happens, especially when voters elect a governor and legislative majorities from a party critical of said program.

More importantly, and with all due respect to the Gratiot Avenue Business Association’s expertise on major infrastructure projects, I will show Mr. Johnson a comparable project “where the taxpayers didn’t end up paying for it in the long run.” It’s called the Ohio Turnpike. A toll-based road, like the NITC, it pays for its maintenance and operation costs directly from turnpike fees. Google is an amazing machine.

The dismal science of job creation

July 29, Macomb Daily: At Thursday’s meeting, Williams said the Detroit Regional Chamber — made up of 20,000 members in 10 counties — endorses the plan because of the NITC’s potential to create 10,000 construction jobs, along with 30,000 spinoff employment opportunities and to retain 25,000 existing jobs.

“Traffic projections make it clear there is no need for a second bridge across the Detroit River,” he said in a statement. “A new taxpayer-funded bridge would take 70 percent of the truck traffic from the Ambassador Bridge and Blue Water Bridge. That would cost Michigan jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.”

Both sides like to talk about jobs. As with every jobs speech from politicians or special interest, I feel dirty afterward. NITC could create 10,000 construction jobs. So could a second span of the Ambassador Bridge. So would spending $500 million to pay unemployed Michiganders to shovel dirt in an empty field.

As for the NITC costing jobs by shifting traffic from the Blue Water and Ambassador Bridge, that’s equally silly. Jobs would, give or take, shift with the traffic.

The NITC should be built or not built based on whether or not it’s a significant upgrade for international trade and travel. If jobs are created as a result, that’s a nice secondary benefit but not a reason to build a ten-figure bridge. Conversely, if job shifts are a reason to not replace an outmoded transportation system with a more modern one, the Interstate Highway System never would’ve been built.

The Mr. Van Dreesen Public Policy Approach

July 29, Macomb Daily: “The devil is in the details,” said [Rep. Tony] Forlini, a Republican from Harrison Township. “When we learned tonight that the NITC won’t pay property taxes and the Ambassador does, to me that’s an unfair advantage. We want fair competition.”

Isn’t great when politicians talk like t-ball coaches in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? The Blue Water Bridge doesn’t pay property taxes either. If the state legislature wants to give the Ambassador Bridge a tax abatement, that’s well within their rights. But, again, governments should build or not build transportation infrastructure based on its transportation benefits. Period. The rest is noise.

“I, uh, hate to judge before all the facts are in.” – General Buck Turgidson

July 29, Macomb Daily: [Rep. Marilyn] Lane, a Fraser Democrat, said: “I was pleased to participate in this tonight, but for me personally, I still need to hear the other side of the proposal from the Ambassador folks before I can make a decision.”

Really? DIBC officials testified in legislative committee hearings last month in Lansing. You can also read Matthew Moroun’s thoughts on the matter in MLive’s interview with him. Or, maybe and I’m just spit-balling here, Rep. Lane could call the DIBC and ask them some questions. It’s unlikely they wouldn’t return a call from a state legislator.

Attempting to hear from all sides of an argument is obviously a prudent approach. The thing of it is, if you’re an elected official, you actually have to do that. You can’t just talk about how you’re going to do that at some undetermined future time. This isn’t due diligence, it’s an abdication of leadership until such time as Rep. Lane can make a politically safe decision.