Why can’t Snyder get his way on the Detroit River crossing?

Crain’s Detroit Business

By Amy Lane

LANSING — There’s not just one thing that’s making it difficult for Gov. Rick Snyder to clear legislation for a new bridge to Canada — there are at least a few.

But the most difficult obstacle to overcome may be this: the political clout wielded by Manuel Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge and the New International Trade Crossing‘s fiercest opponent.

Moroun has done “an effective job of making contributions to political candidates and incumbent legislators, and also pressing the belief that a government-sponsored bridge … will cost the taxpayers money,” said Bernie Porn, president of Lansing-based polling firm Epic-MRA Corp.

The Detroit Free Press reported last week that the Moroun family has given more than $1 million in campaign contributions to state and federal legislators, including $9,700 to six of the seven members of the Senate Economic Development Committee. The report said Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, was the only member of the committee who hasn’t received money from the Moroun family.

It also reported that more than $5 million has been spent on TV commercials opposing the bridge.

And that’s the challenge Snyder continues to face after a planned vote on the legislation paving the way for the New International Trade Crossing didn’t occur last Wednesday, and it appeared that the support wasn’t there to move the legislation out of committee.

Even after nine hearings in the Senate Economic Development Committee and a committee trip to Detroit for a host of stops surrounding the issue, it was evident last week that Snyder has been unsuccessful in rallying GOP support to Senate Bills 410 and 411, which would create a new authority that would enter into an international bridge governance agreement that would include a joint venture between the authority and a Canadian agency. The authority would solicit bids for a private company to build and operate the bridge.

‘Doing the right thing’

The issue is “doing the right thing for the state of Michigan,” said committee Chair Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, noting that many committee members still have questions.

Among them, Kowall said, is “how much is this bridge going to cost, how much is the liability for the state of Michigan (and) how much is there for community benefits” for the Delray neighborhood in Southwest Detroit that would house the proposed bridge.

Kowall took committee members and others on an Aug. 15 bus tour of Delray, the Ambassador Bridge and the proposed NITC site, among other sites.

The NITC has been a priority for many large businesses in the state and many major business groups.

Mark Schurman, director of corporate communications at Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, said he could not speak to the politics of why Snyder is having a difficult time getting the new bridge through the Legislature, but Schurman said there are “a legion of reasons why this (the NITC) makes sense, from an economic and business perspective.”

He said Herman Miller faces long lines with its truck traffic at the Ambassador Bridge and has had instances of four-hour to five-hour waits.

“And then you’ve got the issue of security. … If we have a situation where that bridge is down, it’s only going to multiply the problem,” he said.

Schurman said the Canadian offer of money is a substantial incentive that can leverage federal matching dollars for roads and bridges and also provide the added capacity that’s needed.

Canada’s promise

Canada has promised to cover Michigan’s capital costs related to the bridge, now estimated at up to $550 million, and a private concessionaire would pay for the construction of the bridge and would likely issue bonds that would be repaid through tolls. Under the legislation, the bonds would not constitute a state obligation.

Helena Borges, assistant deputy minister with Transport Canada, the lead agency on Canada’s portion of the project, testified in committee that if the project encounters higher costs on construction than anticipated and revenues are insufficient to pay for those costs, the government of Canada will cover shortfalls.

“Michigan is not on the hook for any of this, and neither are Michigan taxpayers,” she said.

But committee member Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, said he would like to see more than public statements that Canada will cover items like cost overruns and wants a written commitment.

In addition, the Obama administration has voiced support for the project, but the U.S. government has not yet committed funds. Nofs said he’s concerned that federal budget deficit cutting could lead to reductions that would affect U.S. spending on the bridge project.

“I’m just concerned that we are putting ourselves out there saying we’re protected, but are we really protected?” Nofs asked. “So I’m skeptical.”

Committee member Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, said the potential for a future Legislature or court ruling to alter the arrangement with Canada is an issue.

One idea that has been mentioned by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, who is sponsoring the NITC legislation, is a constitutional amendment to further ensure that no state money goes toward the bridge project and that future lawmakers could not direct money toward it.

Hansen and others expressed concern that the state has already put money into the $230 million Ambassador Bridge Gateway project, an agreement between the Michigan Department of Transportation and Ambassador Bridge owners to improve traffic between the bridge and I-75 and I-96. The project remains unfinished amid a legal battle between MDOT and the bridge owners.

Snyder losing political capital?

But even with the Moroun family’s heavy spending, the question still remains: Why can’t Snyder win his party’s support?

After all, it took only a couple of months to overhaul the state’s Michigan Business Tax early this year, an issue that had been stalemated in the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Porn of Epic-MRA said conditions aren’t the same now: He was more popular among voters then.

“So he doesn’t have the political capital that he had when he first started,” Porn said. “And, there’s just a large number of Republican legislators who are under the impression that they can’t do anything that would involve the government in this … whether it would cost taxpayers are not.”

He said he also is surprised that advocates for NITC haven’t put money into a public campaign to counter that of the opposition campaign, and he said that could bear on lawmakers’ votes.

“If they’re not going to engage in messaging that provides a compelling reason to support it, the absence of that message is going to leave the only one out there: reasons to oppose it,” Porn said.

Tom Shields, president of Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group Inc. and a spokesman for backers of the NITC, said the coalition backing the NITC didn’t budget for a mass media campaign, and the individual companies and groups felt a more effective way to get their message out was through one-on-one meetings with legislators.

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said “we’re working very hard on this issue, and our great strength is lobbying. And so I’m not sure that a costly statewide public information campaign is the right thing to do at this point.”

He also said the issue is different than a statewide ballot proposal that all Michigan residents could vote upon.

“It’s a bill in front of a Senate committee, and we’re going to focus on the bill in the Michigan Senate,” he said. “We’re still optimistic that one way or another, this project will be approved and move forward.”