Late changes hold up bridge bill vote

Senate panel reviews version that tries to blunt Delray impact

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The contractor who builds a new public bridge to Canada would have to strike a deal with residents of southwest Detroit on issues such as health, jobs and home repairs, under new bridge legislation that could be voted on today.

The Senate Economic Development Committee is expected to reconvene today after its chairman angrily adjourned Wednesday’s meeting just before a scheduled vote on the New International Trade Crossing.

Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, said he gaveled the meeting to a close because he was handed a substitute bridge bill minutes before the scheduled vote, after holding hearings on the original bill that spanned four months.

“It’s completely unacceptable to be asked to vote on a new bill without first having the opportunity to read it,” Kowall said.

It was the latest hiccup in attempts to approve a new public bridge across the Detroit River that began under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat. She pushed for the bridge, but her second term expired in 2010 before then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop would put the question to a vote.

In January, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder surprised many in his party when he came out in favor of the bridge, saying it will create jobs and help Michigan exporters by clearing a border bottleneck. But he, too, has had trouble advancing it, despite labor and business support, holding majorities in both chambers and promising it will be privately financed, built and run.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun sees the project as unfair government encroachment on his business and has spent millions on TV ads, lobbying and campaign donations to try to stop it. He wants to build a bridge next to his Ambassador.

After months of delay, a vote was scheduled for Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, who backs Snyder on the bridge and sponsored the bill, said Tuesday he thought he had the four votes he needed to move the legislation to the full Senate. But Kowall and other Republicans were angered when they arrived to find an aide to Lt. Gov. Brian Calley distributing a substitute bill.

To make matters worse, a two-page summary lawmakers received used “may include” in connection with details of the community benefits agreement for residents of Delray in southwest Detroit, but the 38-page bill itself said “shall include.”

Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, is seen as a key vote for Richardville to get the bill out of committee. But Emmons denied Wednesday she had committed to a “yes” vote and said: “I could have gone either way.

“I clearly do not know what happened today at all,” Emmons said after the meeting. “You get a bill you haven’t read.” Asked if she was prepared to vote on the substitute today, Emmons said: “That remains to be seen.”

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Richardville, said Kowall and others were supposed to get details about the new bill sooner than they apparently did and Richardville apologizes for any miscommunication. “It wasn’t theatrics; it wasn’t a tactic on our part,” she said.

Democrats said they saw no reason Republicans couldn’t have voted Wednesday, despite the late change.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who represents the Delray area — downriver from the Ambassador and where the new public bridge would be — and has pushed hard for a community benefits package, said it was “shocking” Kowall adjourned the hearing without a vote.

He “gave the Ambassador Bridge time for their divisive tactics,” Tlaib said. “It basically allows time for them to bully members of the Senate.”

The substitute bill would require the company that builds and runs the bridge to sign an agreement with a nonprofit organization designated by the bridge authority to represent area residents.

The bill sets no price tags but says proposals “shall include air and health impacts, jobs and job training, sustaining housing and home repair, and green developments.”

Canada has offered to front $550 million to cover Michigan’s share of the project, estimated to cost $3.6 billion when plazas and connecting roadways on both sides of the river are included. The bill says no Michigan taxpayer money can pay for it.