Canada’s counsel general makes pitch for new bridge — in dollars and sense

Crain’s Detroit Business

By Matthew Gryczan

GRAND RAPIDS — His tone was polite and understated, but his words to Michigan voters were direct: Don’t be “held hostage or made small in your thinking” by the “cynical, manipulative and greedy” private interests of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, avowed foe of the proposed new Detroit River bridge supported by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The strong words Wednesday afternoon from Roy Norton, the Detroit-based consul general of Canada, brought an equally strong applause from the audience of at the West Michigan Policy Forum in downtown Grand Rapids.

The lion’s share of Norton’s 15-minute speech outlined the basis for building a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor — arguably the most important commercial bridge crossing in the world. More than $120 billion worth of goods passed over the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge last year, which Norton referred to as a choke point with a life expectancy of only 50 years when it was built.

Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, has launched an expensive public relations campaign, under the umbrella organization The People Should Decide, to persuade Michigan voters to approve ballot Proposal 6 in the November general election. The proposal would change the Michigan Constitution to force statewide votes on whether new bridges or tunnels should be built with Canada.

Others who took the podium at the conference — Wolverine World Wide Inc. President and CEO Blake Krueger and Continental Rail Gateway executive Marge Byington-Potter — echoed Norton’s messages.

“From a business perspective, … the bridge is a no-brainer,” said Krueger, who oversees the Rockford-based company — which soon may become the world’s third-largest footwear manufacturer if it completes its acquisition of Collective Brands Inc.

“If this was a business decision — not tied up with politics — this decision would have been made two years ago, and we’d already have a head start on the project,” he said.

As one example, Krueger said Wolverine World Wide services its Canadian businesses from its Rockford headquarters and warehouses in West Michigan to the tune of more than 2.2 million pairs of footwear annually.

Potter, executive director of corporate affairs for Continental Rail Gateway — a coalition of the Windsor Port Authority, Borealis Infrastructure and the Canadian Pacific railroad — said plans to build a high-clearance replacement rail tunnel between Detroit and Windsor under the Detroit River — replacing the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel — would be halted if Proposal 6 passes. The tunnel would replace the existing twin tunnels with a single tunnel that can accommodate double-deck railcars.

About 460,000 rail cars annually pass through the existing 102-year-old rail tunnel between Detroit and Windsor.

Under an agreement signed by Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in June, Canada would pay for the estimated $1 billion bridge — known as the New International Trade Crossing — and assume all liability for its construction, recouping its investment through collection of tolls. When it has recouped its investment, Canada then would share tolls with Michigan, similar to the way that Michigan now shares toll revenue with Canada from the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge, which the state built in the early 1960s.

It’s clear that there is much would be gained from having a new bridge, Norton said.

“We do more trade with Michigan than any country in the world except the United States as a whole,” he said. “Half of everything Michigan sells to the world is purchased by Canadians. We are by far your best customers. That includes almost a third of all agricultural products raised or grown on farms in Michigan.”

That trade amounted totaled about $70 billion last year, and Canadian trade has a substantial impact on West Michigan. Norton said that about $2.8 billion of last year’s trade came from U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga’s district, about $1.9 billion from U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s district and about $1.4 billion from U.S. Rep. Justin Amash’s district.

The activity generated 69,300 jobs in the three congressional districts, with almost 19,000 in Kent County, about 5,000 in Ottawa County and 3,000 in Muskegon County alone.

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