COLUMN — Lessons in bridge building

By Tom Watkins
Special to the Sentinel

Gov. Snyder, vision, leadership and persistence will ultimately build the New International Trade Crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Legislators will return soon from their Christmas break. They accomplished much in 2011 —  but left some very important business undone. It is time to get to work and build the New International Trade Crossing.

One thing is for sure: Persistence is needed to ensure that the new public-private bridge is built. That’s one of the lessons to be learned from how a previous governor and Legislature came together to build a bridge — and our state — over a half century ago.

Fifty-five years ago, Michigan’s governor, lawmakers, business, labor and citizens across the state cheered the opening of a bridge connecting our two beautiful peninsulas: the Mackinac Bridge.

Like today, the quest to build the Mackinac Bridge produced naysayers who questioned its need and feasibility and claimed the financing “scheme” to pay for the construction of the bridge was unworkable.

Yet our political leaders then, chief among them Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, were able to overcome the obstacles and build the bridge. Today, we have a beautiful span that stands as a reminder of our capability to overcome insurmountable odds.

Why were our elected leaders then able to build a bridge many thought impossible? Because of vision, leadership and persistence.

The Mackinac Bridge opened to traffic on Nov. 1, 1957. In the souvenir book celebrating the grand opening, a section titled “The Legislative Story” reads: “It is a symbol of progress in Michigan, progress made possible by far-sightedness, by the co-operation, by the unity of purpose and by the devotion to the idea on the part of leaders in the legislature, state administration and interested citizens.” It concludes with this sentence: “Application of the same spirit to other fields will bring a great deal of prosperity in Michigan and make our state a better place in which to work and live.”

We can only wish this sentiment would have spilled over to today.

Gov. Williams, in his welcome letter in the same souvenir book, wrote, “In a larger sense, this bridge is more than just the world’s greatest bridge of steel and concrete. It’s also a symbol of the Michigan spirit — the spirit of a people for whom no obstacle is too wide, no job too big, no undertaking too difficult.”

The New International Trade Crossing, of course, is being held hostage by the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun, and his money and legislative influence.

Michigan should be building a second bridge and putting people to work, not playing political games. Building the new bridge benefits our economic future and makes all the sense in the world.

Canada is our largest trading partner. International trade creates thousands of jobs in Michigan and countless more across the U.S. The case has been made to build another international bridge crossing — and we want it in Michigan, not some other state.

A new bridge has deep support from business, labor, Gov. Snyder and all of Michigan’s living former governors, Republican and Democrat alike. It’s time to build the public-private New International Trade Crossing and get Michigan working again.

Gov. Snyder, please take the advice of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, when he said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Genius will not. Education will not. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

In his first State of the State address a year ago, Gov. Snyder surprised many when he called for the building of this bridge. To date, political gamesmanship and lots of Matty Moroun’s money have dug a moat around accomplishing this goal.

The governor has provided the rationale, vision, and leadership to build this needed bridge. Time will tell if he has the persistence to persevere.

Michigan needs to work. Build the bridge.

Tom Watkins was Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001-05 and is now a U.S.-China business and educational consultant.