A ‘no’ from Legislature won’t spell end for new bridge

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Of all the words spilled in the debate over a new bridge to Canada, perhaps none have so stirred intrigue as those Lt. Gov. Brian Calley spoke in early August.

Calley, the point man for Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to build a new publicly owned bridge between Detroit and Windsor, said then that there are ways to authorize the construction of a new bridge even if the Legislature balks at approving Snyder’s plan.

“This bridge will happen. There’s a lot of ways the bridge can happen,” Calley told the Gongwer News Service. “My favorite way is the way we proposed the first time,” he said, referring to the legislative process, where Snyder’s plan for the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project faces considerable skepticism in the state Senate.

Calley didn’t discuss what the backup options may be. But bridge watchers suggest two possible scenarios.

In one, Snyder would issue an executive order to a state agency, such as the Michigan Department of Transportation, to build the bridge. In the other, the federal government would take over the project, ending Michigan’s involvement.

Either would be likely to spark huge controversy — even more than currently embroils the much-debated NITC project.

Other ideas on how to build bridge surface

So how many ways are there to build a bridge?

For several contentious months now, the only way forward for Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project passed through the Michigan Legislature, where the plan faces skepticism.

Then, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, leading the fight for the NITC, suggested in August that other ways to the same end might be possible.

“There’s a half-a-dozen different ways,” he said then. “I’m not going to get into describing all the different ways that it could happen because I’m still very committed to the way that we proposed, which I think is the best way, but it certainly is not the only way.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on his remarks to Gongwer News Service, but plenty of others have jumped in with suggestions.

Snyder himself has declined to get drawn into that discussion.

“The governor is very, very focused on doing this through the legislative process and working in partnership with the Legislature to make NITC a reality, and has every intent of doing it that way,” Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said this month.

Even so, observers have suggested two possible scenarios should the Legislature reject Snyder’s proposal to set up a new public authority to join with Canada to build the bridge.

In one scenario, Snyder would issue an executive order, directing either the Michigan Department of Transportation or, possibly, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to serve as the fiduciary for U.S. and Canadian funds to build the bridge.

MDOT already has broad experience shepherding big infrastructure projects to completion, including construction of a second Blue Water Bridge span in the 1990s, and dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars in highways funds from the federal government to pay for such projects. It would have the expertise to perform essentially the same function as a public authority created under Snyder’s NITC plan.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, chairman of the Senate’s Economic Development Committee, which is holding hearings on the NITC proposal, said that idea has riled some senators.

“It did raise some eyebrows,” Kowall said of Calley’s remarks. “I was asked by a few of the committee members, ‘Are we just having an exercise in futility here?’ ”

But Kowall agreed that under some circumstances, Snyder may be able to act without legislative approval.

“I do believe the governor could do that by executive order,” Kowall said this month. “I’d have to do a little bit more research. … I think it’d be a little bit risky to go the executive order route. … I don’t think it’s as easy as the governor just making a decision.”

The other possible avenue is to let the U.S. government take over control of the project from Michigan. Federal transportation authorities have declined to speculate on that scenario. But it has been a matter of speculation among watchers of the bridge debate.

Alan Ackerman, a Bloomfield Hills-based attorney specializing in land-use cases, said having the feds take over control would create a terrible outcome for Michigan.

“Then none of our local companies will be involved in the bidding process,” Ackerman, a supporter of the NITC proposal, said this month. “None of them will be involved in the engineering. We’ll lose thousands of white-collar jobs, literally thousands.”

Ackerman said ceding control to the federal government also would create worse outcomes for property owners in Detroit’s Delray community, who would have their land taken to make way for the NITC span and inspection plaza.

“There’ll be no responsiveness to anybody objecting to anything that goes on,” he said. “You have to go to Washington. You ever fight Washington? You know what fighting City Hall is? It’s impossible at the federal level.”

Before either of these scenarios would have a chance to play out, state lawmakers will decide whether to bless Snyder’s plan and create the public authority to build the bridge. Kowall’s committee plans to resume public hearings on the project this month. The issue could come to a vote this fall.