By Garret Ellison | The Grand Rapids Press
GRAND RAPIDS — The lieutenant governor and a Canadian consul general lobbied heavily for a controversial new international bridge crossing over the Detroit River during twin speeches in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, emphasizing the positive economics for both countries in alleviating a border bottleneck.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley touted the deal reached with the Canadian government to build a new bridge to connect I-75 with Highway 401 in Windsor as a zero-risk option for state taxpayers that would help make Michigan “a hub for international trade.”
Calley and Roy Norton, Canadian consul general, each spoke for about a half hour and answered questions during a town hall-style meeting at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium designed to drum up support for the bridge project.
The state Legislature is considering a bill this fall that would authorize the state to put the bridge project out for bids. Norton said Canada has offered to cover Michigan’s estimated $550 million share of the $3.6 billion total project, which includes freeway connections and new customs plazas on both sides.
Manuel Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge and its parent Detroit International Bridge Co., has been lobbying against the New International Trade Crossing because it would draw traffic and toll revenue away from his privately-owned bridge, which Calley called a “monopoly.”
Moroun has tried to “poison” voters against the project in Michigan and Canada with ads, said Norton.
Attending Wednesday’s meeting here were Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, Rep. Roy Schmidt, D-Grand Rapids, and Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville. Each took a varying stance on the proposal.
“I’m still gathering information on it,” said Hildenbrand, although he’s open to the governor’s proposal.
Schmidt said he supported the project when it went though the state House last year, but it died in the Senate.
“When you look at the facts, it’s a no-brainer. It’ll be nothing but positives,” he said. “Especially when you see how big a trade partner West Michigan is with Canada.”
Calley says one in seven jobs in West Michigan is supported by trade with Canada. The project would also draw more than $2 billion in federal transportation funds for Michigan and he said that translates into 5,751 road project jobs in the Grand Rapids area.
Agema, however, is not sold. He questioned whether the $550 million isn’t really a loan and doesn’t believe tolls can cover the span’s construction costs. He favors a proposal by Moroun to build a twin span next to the Ambassador.
“Just let the entrepreneur who has run the best bridge in North America twin it at his own expense and in 20 or 30 years, if you need the other bridge, you’ve got all the environmental and engineering studies done,” he said.
Norton said the “twinning” proposal has not been formally rejected by the Canadian government because paperwork was recently submitted. An environmental impact study is being done, but Windsor residents oppose the option because of its impact on their residential areas.
Calley said a twin span doesn’t address the lack of space for border security inspections and doesn’t include a highway connection to the 401. He called the bottleneck on the Ambassador the “worst” in the entire Pan-American Freeway system.
“You can go from Montreal to Mexico City without hitting a stoplight. But you can’t go from I-75 in Detroit to the 401 in Canada without hitting 18,” he said.
Norton called the project the most important infrastructure priority for the Canadian government.
If passed by the Legislature, Calley said work on the Michigan side could begin next summer. A governing authority would be set up and he said state taxpayers would not be on the hook now or in the future, according to the language in the bill.
“The bridge is going to be there no matter whether the economics of the future succeed or fail,” he said. “It’s a risk the investors take on and the authority may not incur any indebtedness payable by the state.”