The idea: Transform Michigan into the Midwest’s premier inland port and transportation hub, uniquely linking air, sea, rail and road capabilities. Create a new industry — a Great Lakes Global Gateway — forged from our existing manufacturing and agricultural sectors.
The vision: Take advantage of our geography and infrastructure to become the lowest-cost transportation center for freight originating in or destined for the industrial heartland of America. Creating such a gateway would offer the largest single economic development opportunity in Michigan. It has the potential to create tens of thousands of good jobs within a decade, while reducing supply chain costs by as much as 20 percent.
So why isn’t this happening already?
The reality: Overlapping governmental jurisdictions. Sputtering business and political leadership at both state and regional level. Dysfunctional and corrupt institutions in Southeast Michigan. Fragmented authority and no coherent structure to get things done.
The fear: A colossal missed opportunity. “Opportunity is slipping away because other railroads and ports are establishing other places outside Michigan to do this. Ohio is in the process of eating our lunch, while we’ve been embarrassing ourselves by inattention and inaction,” says Professor Michael Belzer. He‘s a former truck driver himself who has become both an economist at Wayne State University and president and CEO of Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway, a nonprofit organization promoting the idea.
The components for what you might call the Michigan logistics industry either exist already, or are within our grasp. But they have languished for years. None have been linked into a coherent business strategy. And the political institutions with jurisdiction over one part or another have largely broken down.
One big part of this is the long-planned Aerotropolis, a comprehensive airport development plan, book-ended by Detroit Metropolitan Airport on the east and Willow Run Airport on the west, with 27,000 relatively undeveloped acres in between. Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano has been a consistent supporter. But near-continuous scandals in his administration have disrupted focus and added to the widespread perception that the county is too corrupt to be effective.
The New International Trade Crossing (NITC) is the famous proposed new bridge across the Detroit River, the costs of which would be covered by the government of Canada. The advantages of the new bridge are huge, but the span has been fiercely opposed by the monopoly interests of the Moroun family, who own the Ambassador Bridge and have showered campaign cash throughout the Legislature.
Once built, the NITC would link truck-borne freight to 88 million people, all of whom could get delivery within 10 hours. Gov. Rick Snyder keeps vowing to build his bridge, but the Morouns continue to bombard the state with scandalously inaccurate TV ads.
Four of North America’s six Class I railroads have a presence in Michigan, including two with their North American entry point in the southeast part of our state. But we aren’t realizing our full potential, since the rail tunnel under the Detroit River is too small to move containerized freight, and business competition and political confusion have stalled efforts to widen it.
The Canadian government is in the process of renovating two deep-water ports for the Atlantic, Halifax and Montreal. These ports could be linked to the industrial heartland of America through the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railroads. However, other deep-water ports exist on the Atlantic seaboard — Norfolk, Va., and Elizabeth, N.J.– and, while we dither, railroads interesting in servicing freight are focusing on interchange and marshalling yards in Columbus and North Baltimore, Ohio.
The city of Detroit is smack dab in the middle of all this. But the city is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and now hobbled with a cumbersome and diffuse “Consent Agreement” governance system. The former Detroit City Airport, now renamed for Coleman Young, is a money-losing city “asset.” But it also lies next to an expressway and railroad tracks. With hundreds of acres of open land, it could be redeveloped into a powerful marshalling yard. Sadly, the chances of that seem very remote, given Detroit’s current state of affairs.
What is needed is focus, political will and a willingness to bust heads to get stuff done. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, after months of dithering, has finally developed a “Statewide Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL) Strategy Project Charter and Statement of Work.”
That’s a start, but it remains to be seen whether this goes beyond some nice words on paper. Several years ago, when I talked with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm about the vast potential of a Great Lakes Global Gateway, she sniffed there were “too many moving parts.” Gov. Rick Snyder ought to know better by now.
He has been trying to get his new bridge for more than a year — and, as an experienced businessman, should realize the gateway idea is the largest potential economic development project this state has seen in half a century. And this chance may never come again.
Not to seize this golden opportunity would be inexcusable.