Chris Vander Doelen
The Canadian government rolled out the biggest bazooka in its arsenal Thursday to fire back at U.S. tycoon Matty Moroun’s attempts to block a new international crossing between Windsor and Detroit.
With only two weeks to go until Michigan voters decide on Proposal 6, legislation which could block the new bridge, the Harper government is using a budget bill to aim its own new legislation squarely at the tactics of billionaire Moroun, who owns the Ambassador Bridge.
The purpose of the new legislation is to derail the legal delays typically employed by Moroun, the Ambassador Bridge and his trucking empire. Together the Moroun group of companies have been waging a multi-year, multimillion-dollar legal and TV advertising campaign to block construction of a competing bridge in the courts.
But the legislation tabled in the House of Commons on Thursday would effectively give carte blanche on the Canadian side to whoever is chosen to build the new bridge. It’s a blanket exemption from nearly all existing laws.
Like the controversial Bill C-38 introduced last year, “part two” of Canada’s latest budget legislation is an omnibus bill encompassing a number of wide-ranging new laws, from MPs pensions to the new bridge.
The economy and creating jobs is the focus of the budget, and the new bridge is the most important part of the bill, said Conservative MP Jeff Watson (Essex).
“We’re making the biggest statement possible by putting it in the budget implementation bill,” Watson said of the bridge bill. “Building this DRIC bridge has been the number one infrastructure priority of the Harper government since 2006. It’s core to the entire economic agenda.”
The New International Trade Crossing, as it known in the U.S., was announced personally by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in Windsor in June.
The fact the bridge legislation is appended to a budget bill indicates the importance the government places on the project: budgets are the most important bills introduced by any government, which literally stand or fall on their passage in the parliamentary system.
The “bridge law” — full name, the Bridge to Strengthen
Trade Act — would provide the Canadian-led and Canadian-financed project with a blanket exemption for any challenges that the infamously litigious the Moroun group might launch as a delaying tactic.
Dan Stamper, president of the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge and the usual spokesman for Moroun on border matters, did not return a call Thursday for comment on the Canadian legislation.
The Canadian bridge bill would create a new entity to build the bridge, and also exempt construction of the project from federal laws requiring permits, approvals and authorizations – all of which can be subject to appeals by third parties such as the Ambassador Bridge.
The new bridge would even be exempt from environmental laws, although whoever builds it would be expected to comply with “the intent” of existing laws, according to a federal backgrounder.
“But nothing changes environmentally because it’s already gone through an EA,” or environmental assessment, Watson said of the new bridge. On the U.S. side, the DRIC bridge still requires a permit from the U.S. Coast Guard and a presidential permit from the White House.
Moroun, however, is banking on Proposal 6 passing on Nov. 6, forcing Michigan to hold a referendum before the Canadian bridge can be built. State officials say the ballot proposal comes too late because they’re already signed an agreement with Canada — a claim that will probably lead to yet more Moroun-funded lawsuits in the U.S.
Canada is funding the entire cost of the DRIC bridge, including its connections to the U.S. Insterstate 75. Ottawa is counting on tolls to cover the costs; Michigan wouldn’t get a half share of the tolls until its half is paid for decades from now.
“It’s all governance issues — this is the first international P3 ever,” Watson said of the legistlation introduced by Denis Lebal, federal minister of transport.
“The nub of it is that we are moving to insulate the DRIC (Detroit River International Crossing) from any future lawsuit on the Canadian side by exempting the DRIC from any laws under which it would have to get permits and permissions and things like that,” Watson said.
The new legislation will also amend the International Bridges and Tunnels Act, establish a new entity to oversee construction of the bridge, and create the authority of the new entity to work on the U.S. side of the border, and the authority to collect tolls.
Some of the legislation had been ready for as long as a year. But it couldn’t be introduced until Michigan and Canada announced their “interlocal agreement” to build the bridge.