Michigan Chamber of Commerce backs Snyder-favored public bridge

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has ended months of neutrality and come out in favor of a new public bridge to Canada backed by Gov. Rick Snyder, chamber President and CEO Rich Studley said Wednesday.

Endorsement of the New International Trade Crossing by Michigan’s largest and most influential business organization is a major boost for Snyder and backers of the bridge, which include nearly all business and labor organizations in Michigan.

It further isolates Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who opposes the public bridge across the Detroit River as an unfair encroachment by government on his private business. Moroun wants to use private money to build a second span beside his existing one.

“We’re very supportive of the governor’s plan to reinvent Michigan and move the state forward,” Studley told The Detroit News. “The decision was made on Monday and Tuesday by our executive committee and board of directors after careful review of the legislation and healthy debate over the pros and cons.”

He sad the chamber is member driven and pushes for economic growth.

Snyder, a Republican, is pushing bills now before a Senate committee that would create a public authority to call for bids on a bridge Snyder says would be publicly owned but privately financed, built and managed. It would be built at a cost of close to $1 billion about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge. The total project cost, including plazas and road connections on both sides of the river, is estimated at about $3.6 billion.

Snyder Press Secretary Sara Wurfel said the chamber’s endorsement is “fantastic news.”

Tom Shields, spokesman for the backers of the bridge, said the chamber endorsement “is the one link that we were missing.”

Now, “everything is pointing in the direction that all the questions the Legislature had about this project are getting answered,” Shields said.

Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, said he wants to discuss the decision with chamber officials.

“I assumed they were getting a lot of pressure from the governor’s people,” Blashfield said.

“The administration has had to reach out to a number of entities to solicit their support for something that is of no consequence to them in terms of an endorsement, but it doesn’t change the facts at the border, it doesn’t change the tremendous cost of the governor’s program compared to the private sector investment at the Ambassador Bridge, and it doesn’t change the underlying need.”

Snyder and business groups say the new bridge would clear a border bottleneck because it would have direct freeway connections on both sides of the river. Trucks that use the Ambassador Bridge must go through more than a dozen traffic lights in Windsor, Ontario, before reaching the freeway.

Another selling point is the backers’ insistence that the new public bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers nothing. Canada has offered to front Michigan’s $550 million share of the project costs and recover the money from the state’s share of bridge tolls.

Moroun has spent close to $5 million on Michigan TV ads depicting the public bridge as an economic boondoggle. He is also airing TV ads in Iowa and across the country aimed at influencing the presidential candidates and federal government.

State GOP lawmakers have generally opposed the public span. Democrats have supported it.

Studley said that in addition to endorsing the public bridge, the chamber’s board of directors is calling on the administration to lay out “a comprehensive statewide transportation investment plan” when Snyder delivers his special message on infrastructure in October.

That includes roads, bridges, ports, airports and public transit, Studley said.

There are more than 500 transportation entities in Michigan and the plan should address ways to eliminate overlap and duplication, Studley said.