Leaders hail bridge deal as a crucial investment in economic future

By John Gallagher, Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press Staff Writers

More than iron and steel, the new bridge announced Friday between Detroit and Windsor can represent the jobs and livelihoods – in many ways, the very economic future – of millions of residents of both the U.S. and Canada.

That was the theme of the day as, amid flags and cheers, Gov. Rick Snyder joined Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to announce the long-awaited agreement to build a new bridge expected to carry a huge amount of trade between the new countries.

In dual ceremonies, first in Windsor, then at Detroit’s Cobo Center, Snyder, Harper and other leaders from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border hailed “a visionary project” to build this second bridge.

It will be the first new bridge built between the two cities since the Ambassador Bridge opened in 1929. The new bridge, like the Ambassador, will carry both cars and trucks. Cars and some trucks also cross the border at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

“This is quite a large project, even for countries as big as the United States and Canada,” Harper said. “It’s an investment in the future … of the North American economy” and “a celebration of the deep friendship that exists between Canada and the United States.”

He added: “This is a glorious day. It’s a magnificent day.”

Billed as an enabler of future economic growth, the new bridge will offer direct freeway-to-freeway connections on both sides of the border and remove what Snyder called “the biggest bottleneck on the Pan-American highway” — the stretch of 17 traffic lights between the bridge and Canada’s 401 highway.

Harper promised that the thousands of construction jobs, as well as the future jobs created by an easier flow of trade, would benefit workers in both cities and both nations. “When the train comes in, everybody rides,” he said.

The 54-page Crossing Agreement signed Friday by Snyder and Canada’s transport minister, Denis Lebel, calls for a new International Authority to set guidelines for choosing a private contractor, or concessionaire, who will design, finance, build and operate the bridge for decades into the future.

The authority will have three members from Michigan and three from Canada. A second entity, known as the Crossing Authority, based in Canada, will hire the concessionaire and be responsible for progress on the bridge.

The agreement calls for Canada to put up the money to pay for the bridge — expected to cost nearly $1 billion for the span itself. Canada will also front Michigan’s $550-million share, which includes connecting the bridge to I-75 in southwest Detroit. Canada’s investment will be repaid with toll revenues.

As Snyder has promised for more than a year, Michigan taxpayers are protected in the agreement, which reads, “The Michigan parties are not obligated to pay any of the costs of the new international crossing.”

The bridge, anticipated to be six lanes wide, will be built about 2 miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge, touching down on the Detroit side in the Delray neighborhood and in Windsor in a mostly industrial area, where it will connect with the new Windsor-Essex Parkway for a direct connection to the 401 highway toward London and Toronto.

The design and construction of the bridge is expected to take up to five years.

Still unnamed, the bridge may be the subject of a naming contest, Snyder told reporters. “We talked about that earlier today,” he said.

Important for securing public support, the agreement calls for the creation of a community-benefits pact for residents in the affected neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

Dozens of business, labor, political and civic leaders from both nations attended the ceremonies and cheered every speaker and every promise of benefits to come.

During a brief question period in Windsor, a reporter asked Snyder why Michigan voters should not be allowed to vote on a referendum on whether the bridge is needed.

“I still believe we’re in a crisis” of high unemployment, Snyder said. Building the new bridge is one of the best ways to create more jobs, he said, adding, “There is no time to wait.”

The Canadian leaders said the importance of the project could not be overstated. Harper called the bridge the single most important piece of infrastructure his government will complete.

“We are prepared to do everything to make it happen,” he said.

James Nicholson of PVS Chemicals and the corporate leadership group Business Leaders for Michigan told the audience in Detroit that the new bridge will be “a game changer” for the city and the state. “We’re looking very much forward to this bridge getting built,” and it could become “an icon” like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, he said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood attended the ceremony and hailed the agreement.

“It’s a particularly big deal for people who want to go to work … for people who need a job,” LaHood said. “That’s what this is all about.”