Understanding the bridge controversy

By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

History: In the 1920s, the U.S. and Canadian governments authorized private companies to build crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, N.Y. Most of the companies went broke during the Great Depression, and the bridges went into quasi-public hands under local bridge authorities. But the company that built the Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929, never lost control, so the bridge remained in private hands, to be acquired by Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. in the late 1970s.

QUESTION: Why do the state and Canada want a new bridge?

ANSWER: The Ambassador Bridge is too narrow for today’s needs. A bridge called the New International Trade Crossing, or NITC, would be six lanes wide, with dedicated lanes for prescreened cargo and travelers. That’s important for auto companies that rely on just-in-time inventory systems to speed manufacturing when they send shipments of parts to assembly plants.

The NITC also would connect directly to expressways, unlike the Ambassador Bridge, which dumps its traffic onto Huron Church Road in Windsor. The Morouns want to build a twin span alongside the bridge but it still would funnel traffic onto Huron Church.

Meanwhile, the customs plazas at the NITC, which would be about 2 miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge, would be larger and more efficient than plazas at the Ambassador, speeding truck inspections.

Also, backers of the NITC contend that the project offers redundancy in case of a terrorist act or any other problem at either bridge. Losing the trade link would be a devastating blow to the regional economy.

Q: Who supports the NITC?

A: Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan’s past living governors — two Democrats and two Republicans. The NITC also has widespread support from business and unions, including the endorsement of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and General Motors and Ford, as well as the Canadian government.

Q: What is the Crossing Agreement?

A: That’s a pact Snyder signed for Michigan and Canada’s Transport Minister Denis Lebel to create the NITC. Under it, Canada will create a Crossing Authority to solicit bids to design, build, finance and operate the new crossing. The agreement guarantees Michigan would pay no bridge costs.

Q: What is Proposal 6?

A: It’s a proposed state constitutional amendment, sponsored by the Moroun family, to require a statewide and a local vote before any new bridges and tunnels could be built between Michigan and Canada.

Q: What would the NITC cost?

A: The bridge, along with connections to nearby highways and the customs plaza, would cost about $2.1 billion.

Q: Who would pay for that?

A: Canada has agreed to front Michigan $550 million to pay its portion, to be repaid through tolls. The Canadians are also picking up part of the cost of the customs plaza on the U.S. side, part of which would be paid for by the U.S. federal government.

The U.S. government has agreed to count Canada’s $550 million as matching funds for U.S. highway funds for Michigan. Since local governments must pay a 20% match for federal highway funds, Canada’s payment would translate into more than $2 billion for state roads.

Q: What about cost overruns?

A: Canada has agreed to pay unexpected costs.

Q: What is the Morouns’ case against the NITC?

A: They say the governor lacked legal authority to sign a deal with Canada without legislative approval. The Morouns also say that, despite protections for Michigan taxpayers in the Crossing Agreement, state residents will get stuck paying for the NITC if tolls don’t cover costs.