Build the bridge

toledoBlade.com

A new bridge between Detroit and Canada is not merely a Motor City or Michigan issue. Rather, it is a vital matter of national security, international trade, and economic growth and job creation throughout the Great Lakes region, including the Toledo area.

Business, government, and labor leaders in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, as well as in Washington and Ottawa, acknowledge that. The Ohio Senate, which probably would have trouble reaching bipartisan agreement on what time it is, recently voted unanimously to back the new bridge.

The politicians who refuse to get it are power brokers in the Michigan Legislature. They are less interested in serving the voters who elected them than in pandering to the competition-fearing billionaire who owns the obsolete private bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ont. The leading Republican candidates for president also continue to run away from the issue in their campaigns.

Too many years have been wasted on excuses and diversionary tactics. The time is now for action on a new bridge.

The Detroit-Windsor border crossing is the busiest and most important link between the United States and Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner. The crossing over the Detroit River handles one-fourth of all trade between the two countries — $500 million worth each day.

Roy Norton, the Canadian consul general in Detroit, estimates the crossing sustains 2 million jobs in his country and an equal number in the United States. That includes as many as 300,000 jobs in Ohio and nearly 20,000 in Lucas, Wood, and Hancock counties. The auto industry in both countries — manufacturers and parts suppliers alike — relies on convenient, efficient access between the American Midwest and Canada.

But that commerce and those jobs are threatened by the dependence of truck traffic on the dilapidated Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929. Its 84-year-old owner, Manuel Moroun, has subverted plans for a new bridge.

Mr. Moroun demonstrated his corporate citizenship when he was jailed briefly this year for defying a court order to fulfill his agreement to connect his bridge to nearby interstates. Courts took that project away from him and ordered him to pay the state $16 million to finish it.

While Mr. Moroun insists a new bridge is unnecessary, he also proposes building a second span next to the Ambassador Bridge that he would control; Canada rejected that scheme. He blames the chronic traffic delays on his bridge on inadequate customs staffing at both ends.

To call that excuse unpersuasive would be charitable, but it hardly matters: The Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature has refused for years even to vote on a $2 billion proposal for a new bridge that would cost taxpayers nothing.

It seems more than coincidental that Mr. Moroun has made large campaign contributions to legislative leaders. The support of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for the new bridge counts for much less among his GOP colleagues in Lansing.

The Canadian government wants the new bridge so badly that it is offering to front Michigan’s $550 million share of start-up costs for the project, and allow the state to repay that loan out of future toll revenues. The Obama Administration, which is just as eager to get the new bridge built, says it will let Michigan use the Canadian loan to leverage more than $2 billion in federal aid to fix its decrepit roads and bridges.

Last week, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, told The Blade’s sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he is confident a bridge deal will get done next year. He did not elaborate on the reasons for his optimism, but added: “I wouldn’t have said that last year.”

Mr. Doer said he believes an agreement will be reached no matter who wins this year’s U.S. presidential election. Yet Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum refuse to endorse the project.

The evasive assertion by Mr. Romney, a Detroit native, that the issue is “up to the people of Michigan to decide” is a particular default by a would-be president. It offers a reason for voters in Ohio and Michigan, and other Great Lakes states, to doubt his capacity for leadership.

Auto industry analysts say the new bridge would be a major generator of construction and permanent jobs in both countries; the Detroit Three automakers and United Auto Workers back the project. Mr. Norton says the bridge would help Toledo exploit its transportation and logistics advantages in the region.

There is every good reason to build the new bridge, and no good reason not to. It’s time to get it done.