Canadian envoy confident of bridge

By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Canadian government is confident a delayed bridge connection between Detroit and Canada that is vital for trade will be approved next year, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

In the leadup to last month’s presidential primary in Michigan, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney refused to take a stand on the proposed $2 billion span, which is supported by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, the Canadian government and a host of labor and industry officials in both countries. It is hoped to be an alternative to the traffic-choked, 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which is the busiest border crossing in North America.

“We have decided in Canada and in Michigan to do our due diligence with the federal agencies that are responsible, but get a plan, a proposal finished that we can both support. And then we will ask the president, whoever that is, to approve it as an international crossing,” said Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., in an interview in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Mr. Doer, a former premier of Manitoba, spoke to the World Affairs Council on international security, energy independence and economic cooperation between the U.S. and Canada.

“Whether it is President Obama or candidate Romney, the governor of Michigan prefers to get an agreement with the government of Canada, which we’re working on. If we get an agreement, we’ll announce it.”

Bridge plans have moved forward in the past few months, he said, despite a setback in the Michigan legislature last fall.

“I think it’s going to get done. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago,” Mr. Doer said before adding, “We haven’t gotten it done. We don’t put our hands in the air until the puck’s in the net in Canada.”

Plans for the new span have been bitterly opposed by the private owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Michigan billionaire Manuel Moroun.

Mr. Moroun’s company has argued that the notorious traffic backups on the bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, are due to inadequate customs staffing on both sides. He believes building a new publicly financed span would be a bureaucratic boondoggle. Conservative groups such as the tea party-aligned Americans for Prosperity also have questioned the project.

Mr. Moroun sued in 2010 to block the new bridge. He was briefly jailed in January for contempt of court in a dispute with the Michigan Department of Transportation related to a long-delayed construction project on the old bridge.

The Canadian government has pledged a $550 million loan to cash-strapped Michigan to cover its portion of construction costs for the New International Trade Crossing bridge, which was on track for state approval before being blocked in the GOP-controlled state senate in October.

Mr. Moroun’s lobbying might in Lansing and a series of negative ads on the bridge proposal were key in the stoppage. If Mr. Romney, a suburban Detroit native, had announced his support for the proposal it might have paved the way for Senate approval this election year, but he instead said it was a matter for state leaders to decide.

Mr. Doer said he met with Mr. Snyder last month during the National Governors Association meetings in Washington, D.C., to go over cross-border business agreements on bridge management, tolls and other legal language.

“We think whoever’s president will find it in the U.S. economic interest to proceed,” Mr. Doer said. “This is needed, in terms of merit, in two-way trade. To us it’s a sensible proposal, to the United States it’s a sensible proposal.”