Bridge vote big deal for Canada

By Colin Kenny, The Windsor Star

No matter how elated – or despondent – Canadians might be about the results of the U.S. presidential election, every one of them should take a moment to cheer the results of a sideshow ballot in Michigan.

Proposal 6 – the Michigan International Bridge Initiative – proposed that the government of Michigan should never again be allowed to “take ownership” or “use state funds” to build international bridges without getting voters’ approval in a state plebiscite.

Proposal 6 failed. It failed despite the fact the monopoly owners of the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor spent millions of dollars plastering the state with a series of bogus ads suggesting that the government of Michigan intends to spend “billions” of dollars on a second Detroit-Windsor bridge – three kilometres downstream from the Ambassador Bridge – without consulting the public.

In fact, the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, signed an agreement with Prime Minister Stephen Harper last June that would have Canada pay the entire $2.1-billion cost of the new span.

Canada’s costs would be recovered over approximately 50 years from tolls. After recovery of these costs, the two governments would share revenues over the remaining lifespan, which should be an additional 75 years. At no point would Michigan taxpayers be on the hook for any expenditures – they would only collect revenue.

The Moroun family, which owns the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, twisted this agreement to suggest that, because the government of Michigan would be part owner, Michigan taxpayers would be liable for losses that were bound to occur because traffic projections had been overstated and revenue projections were “fatally flawed.”

It is true that diminished revenue for the Ambassador Bridge owners would mean lower tax revenues for the State of Michigan, as will any diversion of traffic to the Bluewater Bridge between Sarnia and Port Huron. That would likely amount to several hundreds of millions of dollars spread over 50 years, but that is a small price to pay compared to the advantages the bridge will bring the Michigan economy and the revenues Michigan will start reaping after those 50 years are up.

The failure of this proposal means that the two governments can get on with putting up the new bridge – known as the New International Trade Crossing – scheduled to be ready for traffic in 2017. It is long overdue. Seven years ago, the Canadian Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, in its report Borderline Insecure, urged the federal government to do everything in its power to put a new span in place by 2013.

Why is this so important to both Americans and Canadians? We’re not just talking about fixing the traffic jams around the Windsor end of the bridge, which would be reason enough for a new span. The two primary reasons, however, have to do with economics and security.

Windsor-Detroit is the busiest international trade nexus in North America, funnelling about a half a billion dollars worth of trade a day. The Ambassador Bridge carries most of the freight. Nobody knows when it will die of old age. Because it is in private hands, maintenance is a private matter.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the aforementioned Senate committee gave careful consideration to the many vulnerable pieces of infrastructure critical to Canada that would constitute ripe targets for would-be terrorists.

Our conclusion was that the Ambassador Bridge was at the top of the list. Anything that shut that bridge would be devastating to the Canadian economy.

There is a critical need for a second span at Windsor-Detroit. To its credit, the Harper government has recognized the urgency of fast-tracking this project. The failure of Proposal 6 should bring a national sigh of relief in Canada and nothing but good for the citizens of Michigan.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defense. Email: kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca.