The Ambassador Bridge’s latest broadside against new Detroit-Windsor crossing falls flat

By Jeff T. Wattrick |

Matthew Moroun, vice-chair of the Detroit International Bridge Company, trotted out three so-called experts to bluster against the New International Trade Crossing this morning at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Detroit.

Attending such an event, even via conference call, is a little like stepping into bizzaro world.

To be sure, the debate over the plan for a new Detroit-Windsor bridge is complicated, and there may very well be valid reasons to be skeptical—in particular the argument that traffic projections don’t necessarily suggest the NITC bridge will pay for itself.

Although that strongest argument against the NITC can be refuted by simply noting that traffic projections are hopelessly unreliable.  The Anderson Economic Group’s study of the NITC project noted that traffic projections for toll-based projects have “underestimated real traffic by as much as 86%, or overestimated real traffic by as much as 51%.”

The truth is no one has the first real clue about what traffic will look like in 2017, the earliest the new bridge is expected to be completed. As the old saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Still, since the pro-NITC folks claim toll revenues will more than pay for the construction, operation and maintenance of the new bridge, the argument that “zero cost to the taxpayers” isn’t a slam dunk is a decent one.

Unfortunately, in the DIBC bizarro world, that valid argument looks like (at best) gilded lead being passed off as gold. While there were no phony eviction notices or bizarre claims of secret Chinese plots, the DIBC offered up what can only be described politely as “a barnyard epithet.”

Marcus Lemon, former chief consul to the Federal Highway Administration, was the most egregious in the effort to insult the intelligence of attendees.

“I continue to be very concerned about reports coming out of Michigan that talk about a proposed foreign loan of $550 million that will somehow result in a giant lump sum payment of $2.2 billion from the federal government,” Lemon said. “That is simply false. That could not possibly happen at one time.”

It’s really interesting that Lemon would be “very concerned” about that since there is no claim that a $2.2 billion lump sum would be transferred to the state coffers.  What Governor Rick Snyder’s bridge plan involves is using the $550 million toll plaza—built with funds fronted by Canada—to offset projected shortfalls in Michigan’s federal transportation dollars over the 4-5 years needed to complete the bridge. They’ve said that match could equal up to $2.2 billion in federal money.

“They set up a straw man and then they knock it down,” said Tom Shields, who who’s handling public relations for the coalition supporting the NITC, dismissing the “lump sum” canard as a falsehood.

Here’s how Lt. Gov. William Calley described the NITC/match plan in August.

Aug. 23, On top of that we have federal government willing to consider the Canadian money spent on an I-75 interchange and plaza as Michigan money spent on an I-75 interchange and plaza, meaning that it would solve a big problem we have in the future, which is not being able to draw down our federal dollars. We will be about $125 million short in our [federal transportation] match money next year, based on what we think we’ll be able to collect in gas tax revenues.

According to a CMU Public Radio report, that shortfall could grow to as much as $370 million by 2014.

When pressed Lemon couldn’t cite a single example of anyone saying the federal match would be delivered as a “lump sum,” instead he retreated to a position that he doesn’t think the NITC federal match would ever total $2.2 billion and, golly gee, there are other avenues for Michigan to reach that match.

Actually both Lemon and Shields kind of agree that alternative resolutions for the federal match shortfall could exist if the NITC doesn’t happen.

“Governor Snyder has always said we can find other ways to get the match but it won’t be pretty,” said Shields. Those “other ways,” he says, could include diverting funds from budget items such as education or raising the gas tax.

Far be it for me to accuse a well-respected barrister such as Mr. Lemon of lying, but my limited vocabulary—even after consulting the good people at Roget’s—fails to offer a more suitable description of his performance this morning. David Mamet once had used the phrase “gift for fiction.” Let’s go with that.

And bald-faced fictions such as Lemon’s mischaracterization of the NITC/federal match proposal essentially calls into question his integrity and expertise on the entire issue.

The DIBC’s two other experts, Van Conway of Conway MacKenzie and Hillsdale Professor of Economics Gary Wolfram, were equally unimpressive.

Conway trotted out his May study that paints a negative picture of the NITC’s fortunes. The problem with Conway is, if what he is saying is true, the issue is entirely academic because no private builder/operator would step forward to build the thing. Lansing could pass a million authorizations for the bridge, but no one would build it.

His study, paid for by the DIBC, doesn’t jibe with the independent Anderson review of the NITC project.

Competing studies aren’t uncommon, and since 99.9% of the population lacks the expertise or the time to independently verify either the Anderson or Conway MacKenzie conclusions, the perception of integrity matters a lot here. Anderson’s wonks aren’t sitting on a panel with someone telling fictions about “lump sums” and the like.

For his part, Wolfram argued simply that the Mackinac Bridge ended up costing the taxpayers. The NITC legislation in Lansing is written to protect taxpayers from any liability, but Wolfram argues that laws can be changed or modified in the future.

Well, yes, that’s a kind of argument. The blue wall is blue until someone paints it white. That theoretical future paint job doesn’t mean the wall isn’t presently blue.

Nor does it suggest the Michigan legislature in any way is likely to reverse itself and add additional liabilities to the state’s already stretched budget. It’s also possible Martians could land in Lansing between now and the NITC’s completion.  Where’s Gov. Snyder’s plan for that contingency?

In the end, the strongest case for the NITC is its opponents’ self-inflicted lack of credibility. If the anti-NITC crew said it was raining, you’d want to step outside to see if you got wet.