Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled a historic agreement Friday to build the $1-billion government-backed bridge which they hope finally ends 10 years of controversy and unfulfilled promises to fix the gridlock at the Windsor-Detroit border.
Calling it a necessary step to better facilitate – and expand – the current $120 billion in annual Canada-U.S. trade going across the Detroit River, the prime minister said there is no project more urgently needed in this country than the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) bridge.
“This is the single most important piece of infrastructure our government will complete while I am prime minister,” Harper said.
He also fired a warning shot against the project’s biggest opponent – Ambassador Bridge billionaire owner Matty Moroun – or any political body which attempts to get in the way of the DRIC bridge becoming reality. It is widely anticipated Moroun will quickly head into the courts and continue to heavily lobby politicians in an ongoing bid to stop the project
“We are prepared to do whatever it takes,” Harper said. “Make no mistake, whatever battles lie ahead this bridge is going to get done.”
The new bridge will link the industrial communities of Brighton Beach and Delray. It will be located about two kilometres downriver from the 83-year old Ambassador Bridge.
Officials from the bridge company issued their only response Friday, just hours before the announcement – much of it focused on criticism of Snyder.
Moroun is in the midst of attempting to gather enough signatures on a petition before July 7 in order to get the bridge issue on the ballot for the upcoming statewide election in November. He wants voter approval required for any new border crossing in Michigan.
“Whether a government bridge will ever be built, it is the people who should decide.” said bridge spokesman Mickey Blashfield.
“The Michigan legislature, after reviewing all the facts, was not convinced. Now hardworking taxpayers will vote in November whether they trust him. We believe the people want and deserve to have a vote about such an important issue.”
Details of the deal show Canada takes on all the risk of the bridge project with Michigan under no risk for its taxpayers – thanks to Canada’s offer to pay up to $550 million towards the state’s share of the project.
Snyder expressed gratitude to the Canadian government for offering financial help to get the bridge built given the economic realities of his hard-hit state which is rife with unemployment and low income levels.
“That is what partnership is all about,” he said. “Stepping up to help someone because we’ve been through many difficult years. We weren’t in a position to do this bridge.”
The Michigan contingent attending Friday’s announcement were wearing badges touting “10,000 jobs” the bridge project will help create.
“It’s time for a new crossing because trade demands it and it’s an opportunity to create jobs,” Snyder said.
Flanked by Canadian and U.S. dignitaries that included Harper and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Canada’s Transportation Minister Denis Lebel and Snyder later signed the formal bridge agreement during a second ceremony at Detroit’s Cobo Center.
Outside that event in Detroit more than 100 protesters representing both sides of the bridge debate staged a demonstration.
Given likely legal challenges by Moroun, there is no projected start date for the DRIC bridge.
Even if all goes smoothly, it will take at least a year for expropriation on the Detroit side, financing to be finalized and tenders issued, officials said.
Once a shovel is in the ground, the bridge project, which includes new plazas on both sides and a new feeder road connecting to I-75 on the U S. side, will take four to five years to complete.
In a best case scenario that puts the finish date at least into 2017 or 2018 when 8,000 truckers crossing the local border daily will finally have another option.
“It’s been a long road to get to this day, with even more stops and starts than on Huron Church Rd.,” said David Bradley, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. “So, we are thrilled the new crossing will become a reality.”
Canada is to be repaid the $550 million through bridge tolls and will carry all the financial risk if there is not enough revenue to cover those costs.
A private contractor will be retained to finance, build and manage the bridge and Canada will owe payments under the planned public-private partnership.
There will be creation of a new six-member bridge authority with equal representation from Canada and the U.S. All tolls will be collected on the Canadian side.
Also in the agreement is a clause which indicates that after 40 to 50 years once the $550 million loan money is repaid, the tolls will then be split evenly between Canada and Michigan.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was also on hand Friday, applauding the work of the Canadian and Michigan governments for getting the bridge deal done and noting Ontario’s commitment to the DRIC effort – the $1.4-billion Windsor Essex Parkway – will no longer be a “road to nowhere.”
The parkway is projected to be complete in 2014.
Border traffic will have the option to remain on Huron Church Road, north of E.C. Row Expressway until the DRIC bridge gets finished, said Fausto Natarelli, director of the Windsor Border Initiative Implementation Group helping to oversee parkway construction.
“Remember around E.C. Row there was always plans for an exit, so depending on where travelers need to go they can choose,” he said. “In the interim, drivers will have the option to exit near E.C. Row and continue on to the Ambassador Bridge.”
Mayor Eddie Francis was among those who attended the announcement.
“It’s a proud day for all of us and exciting for the region,” he said. “For the communities involved – ourselves and those in southeast Michigan – this goes all the way back to 1999. We’ve been waiting a long, long time for this and to have the political leadership deliver makes it truly a historic day.”
The new bridge will be located on the Windsor side in the riding of local MP Brian Masse (NDP – Windsor West) who has long been a supporter of the project and critical of Moroun.
“This is the culmination of relentless efforts by citizens and organizations on both sides of the border who spent years fighting for this bridge despite seemingly insurmountable odds,” he said. “By standing together, Windsorites and Essex County citizens have ended a profiteering monopoly and made a crucial investment for our long-term prosperity.”
Ontario’s finance minister and local MPP Dwight Duncan (L- Windsor-Tecumseh) noted despite the deal, there is still a lot of work ahead to get the bridge built.
“There will be some good days and some down days, but everyone is prepared to keep moving on,” he said. “There is a long road ahead and some big steps still, but this is a very important day.”