Brian Calley Interview: 12 highlights from our conversation with Michigan’s Lt. Governor about NITC and border crossing politics

By Jeff T. Wattrick |

As the Snyder Administration has lobbied to win legislative approval for the project, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley emerged NITC’s top public advocate within the administration.

Last week, in advance of the state legislature’s fall session, MLive sat down with Lt. Gov. Calley to discuss the NITC’s prospects in Lansing. Part one of that conversation was published on Tuesday. Part two was published on Wednesday. Here are some highlights:

NITC and Michigan commerce: We have an economy that’s still very much based on the success of exporting things made in Michigan to the rest of the world. Our most important customer is Canada. Over half of our exports are sold in Canada. Just simply getting our goods to market is critically important to the future of this state, and jobs in this state.

On why the Ambassador Bridge isn’t enough: But the fact that you have seven miles, and 18 traffic signals, and a road they’re trying to retrofit for 8000 commercial trucks per day to make it through a plaza area that was never designed for post-9/11 inspections—secondary inspections off site, a couple miles away—all these different factors make it an awful bottleneck for our exporting companies to deal with.

Taxpayer liability? Read the bill!: All you really have to do is read the bill, and you’ll see that it is crystal clear. It is impossible that the failure of a bridge, done in the way we are proposing it, could come back and create a liability for the state of Michigan. It’s not even something that’s—it’s not even tricky to do—the separation of financial responsibility for the success of this bridge that will be built, financed and managed by a private concessionaire.

The Moroun family’s political influence: it’s difficult to put your thumb on exactly how one entity has been able to gain such a stranglehold on the political system. I will say they’ve had a lot of practice at it over the years, and have substantial financial resources to put into the political system. Kwame Kilpatrick’s largest donor ever was the Morouns. The same could be said about Republican politics as well; money does impact the process, or at least buys access.

What if the state legislature doesn’t pass the NITC bill?: I’ve identified—if you consider legislation one way—seven additional ways that the bridge could be authorized and completed. … So we’re very much committed to our proposal, still thinking it’s best, but at the end of the day, there is so much demand for an end-to-end border solution that I’m confident that if the legislature doesn’t act, there would be some other method that it would be authorized under.

On how the Snyder Administration secured the federal matching funds commitment: The first step is we asked. I don’t think that anyone ever asked before.

Precedent for Canada covering Michigan’s costs: When the original Blue Water Bridge was built, the roles were exactly opposite. It was Michigan who paid for everything, and waited for the bridge tolls to pay it back. This is just another chapter of Michigan and Canada being the long-term good friends that they are.

Why can’t Michigan pay for its own NITC plaza?: It’s not as much a financial problem as a political problem. We just spent—the taxpayers of the state of Michigan—$230 million on a new interchange for the Ambassador Bridge.

At the same time, the Ambassador Bridge is criticizing this proposal because the Canadians are going to pay for an interchange, and they’re afraid that in some way, shape or form down the road we might have to pick up the tab for that. We won’t, but they claim we might have to.

It’s quite an interesting contrast. They criticize us for a perceived potential contingent liability, and on the other hand, they had their hand out to say: “Build us a new interchange and plaza area and have the taxpayers pay 100% of it.” They have been getting their operations subsidized by the taxpayers of the state of Michigan.

The prospects for a new Ambassador Bridge: We all, in our shop, still believe that a viable border crossing operation at that location is important. We believe we need both bridges. The bridge we’re proposing is not enough. We still need their bridge. The current one will not last forever, so redesigning the Michigan-side plaza to make it provide for freeway connection without going through southwest Detroit neighborhoods is important. So I believe it is a good investment when the improvements they agreed to finally get made. But it’s only to accommodate a replacement bridge, not an additional six lanes of traffic.

What happens if the NITC isn’t built?: [A]s a practical matter the road that takes you from the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge to the 401 is at capacity already, and the plaza is at capacity already today, even though the bridge itself isn’t. What happens is when a company that’s already in the state of Michigan is looking at where to expand, they have to look at it and say: “Well, I have to get to Canada so maybe I do Ohio instead, and then I can go through Buffalo.

Michigan as a transportation and logistics hub: [T]his is also an opportunity for us to grow around a strategy to be an intermodal transportation hub. You think about the ports on the east and west coast of our country, take New York for example, those are so outside of capacity that they can’t get much more activity there. Yet the trade in and out of this country continues to increase each year.

If we could connect in the rail, the water, the surface transportation, the air transportation with our great international airport—think about the ability to take a piece of the international trade and all the activities that happen around that—Michigan would be perfectly positioned.

Infrastructure as an economic growth tool: You look at a lot of the success they’ve had in Southeast Asia, it’s been growing around a supply chain. You get a piece of a process and say: “Well, what happens right before the piece that we have, or what happens right after that piece, and what’s stopping it from happening here?”

You know, to grow along the supply chain, but it only happens if you’re part of it in the first place. So the potential to grow is unlimited. We look at this as the opportunity to expand the growth potential of the companies that are currently in Michigan, but then also capture additional pieces in the value-add process.

This project could be a vital component to that. Transportation assets are so integral to making that happen. That’s why you see so many business groups advocating for a comprehensive transportation solution, like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. It’s what is required for the success of their members.

MLive’s conversation with Lt. Gov. Calley is part of a series of interview we’ve conducted and will continue to conduct with key stakeholders in the border crossing process. Be sure to check out our interview’s with the Ambassador Bridge’s Matthew Moroun and Canadian Consul-General Roy Norton for more about this debate.