Canadian officials lobby Michigan lawmakers for NITC bridge

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Free Press reporter John Gallagher is taking a tour with lawmakers today of both the Detroit and Windsor sides of the Ambassador Bridge as well as the Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit where the Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed New International Trade Crossing bridge would land. He will post periodic updates throughout the day.

5:52 p.m.: During the stop in Windsor, lawmakers heard from several Canadian officials who said the NITC bridge was absolutely necessary for the economic security of both the U.S. and Canada.

“We need a 21st Century infrastructure crossing,” Jayson Myers, president and CEO of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters trade association, told the visitors. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis echoed that.

“The Michigan and southwest Ontario region is one economic unit,” he said. The NITC project “allows us to compete with the rest of the world with modern infrastructure.”

Some of the Michigan lawmakers appeared most interested in Canada’s promises to cover Michigan’s share of the construction costs of NITC. Among others, State Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford) said he appreciated the promise but wanted to see it in writing or written into authorizing legislation.

“I see the need for the project in the long term. I see the advantage to this location. But I’m concerned about the finances and making sure it’s done properly,” Jacobson said.

Several of the lawmakers said they had to consider what they had heard today before making up their minds on the issues.

“I’m still in fact-finding mode,” said State Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek). Kowall echoed that.

“It’s been a long day,” he said.

The bus tour was returning to the Detroit side to conclude the day’s visit.

3:29 p.m.: The bus tour stopped on the city’s west riverfront site where the NITC bridge would land in Detroit. During remarks there, John James, chairman and CEO of James Group International, a Detroit-based logistics company, urged the lawmakers to approve the NITC project.

“This is a tremendous growth opportunity,” he said. “Let’s not miss this one.”

Then, on the way to Windsor, the bus tour stopped midway across the Ambassador Bridge so visitors could inspect the redecking project now underway. One of the bridge’s four lanes has been redecked and a second lane is undergoing redecking now. The bridge company hopes to finish the redecking of the whole bridge by December.

The briefing by Canadian officials in Windsor got underway around 3:30 p.m.

1:36 p.m.: During the stop at the Delray Community House, State Sen. Coleman Young said he would support Snyder’s NITC proposal only if includes the community benefits agreement that Tlaib called for.

Such an agreement could include job training for Delray residents, relocation assistance or new homes for residents displaced by the NITC project, and pollution controls on trucks using the bridge.

“This project if done right can really change the trajectory of the city of Detroit,” Young told the gathering. “We have a jobs problem in Detroit. People need to be put to work.”

Afterward, one of the visiting lawmakers, State Sen. Geoff Hansen (R-Hart), who represents the Muskegon area, said he still had many questions about whether to support either the NITC project or the Morouns’ second span for the Ambassador Bridge. “There’s misdirection on both sides,” he said. “Spin.”

12:50 p.m.:During a lunch stop at the Delray Community House, the visitors heard an impassioned plea from State Rep. Rashida Tlaib to include a legally binding community development agreement in the NITC legislation. Such an agreement could lead to better pollution controls, more sustainable housing development, and new jobs and tax base in Delray, today one of the city’s most distressed districts, where the new bridge would land.

“These accountability measures are key to making this win-win,” Tlaib said. “You don’t want people to go across this bridge, look left, look right, and see blight.”

She added, “We want to reinvent the city of Detroit, and we think this is part of it…. Let’s build it right.”

12:02 p.m.: During a stop at the Moroun-owned duty free store at the Ambassador Bridge, bridge owner Matty Moroun and his wife, Nora, were on hand to greet legislators.

Moroun joked with media photographers swarming around him that their lens would break if they took his photo. He said he would not be making any formal remarks but was simply there to answer questions.

As the tour progressed, sharply divergent views emerged about the issues surrounding the bridge debate. As the tour bus rolled own Fort Street near the Ambassador Bridge, Matthew Moroun told the visitors that industrial property lined both sides of the street near the bridge, so that no residential neighbors were being inconvenience by bridge operations. But Tlaib, a Democrat who represents southwest Detroit, immediately pointed out historic St. Anne’s church near the bridge and noted that both new homes and historic houses were nearby.

11:18 a.m.: A sharp debate broke out at the very first stop of the tour at an Ambassador Bridge processing area for trucks. Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the Detroit International Bridge Co. and son of bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun, told the assembled legislators and others on the bus tour that “nothing but politics and ideology” was stopping the bridge company from building its second span to Windsor.

He called the Ambassador Bridge “a shining symbol of American prosperity” and said that the proponents of Snyder’s NITC project were “standing in the way of American capitalism.”

In response to a question about the Moroun’s family’s political contributions to state lawmakers, Moroun replied, “My politics are support of the private sector and against government expansion.”

In response, Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, which supports the NITC project, denied Moroun’s contention that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for the NITC. “The taxpayers are completely protected” by the proposed NITC plan that would pay for the new bridge with bridge tolls and support from the Canadian government.

Also, Eric Gaabo, a City of Detroit attorney, told the visitors that to build his own second span next to he Ambassador Bridge, Moroun would need control of the city’s Riverside Park, and that won’t happen, he said. “The city at present has no plans to sell that property, to swap that property, to give that property to the bridge company,” Gaabo said. “You can’t build a bridge without owning the property and they don’t own the property and the city doesn’t intend to sell it to them.”

7:42 a.m.: About a dozen Michigan state senators and representatives had a firsthand look today at the site of a proposed new bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

Today’s all-day bus tour is part of the fact-finding phase leading up to what is expected to be this fall’s debate in Lansing over Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed New International Trade Crossing bridge project.

The legislators will visit both the Detroit and Windsor sides of the Ambassador Bridge as well as the Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit where the NITC bridge would land. Lawmakers will get briefings from Ambassador Bridge officials as well as Canadian officials in Windsor and other proponents of the NITC project.

The tour has been organized by state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, chair of the Senate’s Economic Development Committee. Kowall said that many of his fellow lawmakers need to see the area firsthand.

“I’m originally from that area, so I know it real well, but some of our members haven’t been, so I’d like them to see it,” Kowall said last week.

The tour began at the Michigan Welcome Center near Bagley and I-75 near the Ambassador Bridge when Kowall called a meeting of his Senate Economic Development Committee to order. He told assembled media, legislators, staffers, and advocates of one side or the other in the bridge debate that he and other lawmakers were on a fact-finding mission today.

“We’re here to clear the air, get all the facts on the table,” he said.

State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, echoed that. “I”m here to learn,” she said.