Bridge fight eventually spans choppy waters

Western News

By Paul Mayne

Roy Norton never expected the troubled waters he would encounter pushing for a second bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit across the Detroit River. At Western Law Monday, he stressed how building that second span is a precondition to ensuring the manufacturing vitality of Canada and the United States for years to come.

“We’re counting on achieving redundancy and consumer choice in wanting to build another bridge,” he said. “But we can’t be certain, given the current bridge’s age, just how long it will last, which increases the urgency to getting along with another complementary bridge.”

The Ambassador Bridge, built in 1929, had an initial lifespan of 50 years.

The Canadian Consulate General, which he heads in Detroit, promotes Canadian interest in trade, investment, environment, culture and academic relations in the four states he represents – Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Combined, the population of the four – 33 million – matches all of Canada.

In 2011, Ontario’s global exports totaled $181 billion – $142 billion of that (or 78 per cent) was to the United States alone. In fact, 29 per cent of Ontario’s exports, or $52 billion, are to the four states Norton represents. The United States sells more to Canada than it does to China, Japan, UK, Brazil and Russia combined. Half of Michigan’s global exports are purchased in Canada and, of course, cross the Ambassador Bridge.

So, you would think that kind of traffic would make a second span and easy sell.

Think again.

Since taking on his role as Counsel General in September 2010, Norton spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to persuade Michiganders of the importance of this project.

“Getting the predictable capacity to get stuff to us should be pretty important to them,” he said. “Getting to where we are today has been harder than, objectively, it should have been, which is why outside-the-box policy-making and diplomacy was required.”

Norton said the biggest stumbling block facing the construction of a new bridge has been Michigan-based billionaire and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Maroun. The trucking magnate wrestled the bridge away from Warren Buffet when it went up for sale in 1979, and has fought against a second bridge almost ever since.

Referred to as Canada’s top infrastructure priority since the mid-1990s, there have been 15 different possibilities discussed regarding a new bridge. In 2008, the Canadian government attempted to purchase the Ambassador Bridge from Maroun, but was met with a exorbitant price tag.

In 2010, Canada offered to pay for the whole thing, assuming full responsibility. Then-Transport Minister John Baird sold the idea to his cabinet members.

“With Michigan hard hit by the recession, unemployment hovering around 15 per cent and the auto industry barely alive, Canada, the relatively generous foreign aid donor that we are, is not in the habit of giving away free infrastructure to developed countries,” Norton said. But they did. And along with covering the cost of the $3.8 billion, six-lane project, Canada would also agree to pay $550 million for the connection from the foot of the bridge Interstate 75 on the U.S. side.

The New International Trade Crossing would be located a couple kilometres south of the existing bridge, connecting Brighton Beach in Ontario with Delray in Michigan.

Maroun jumped into the fray, spending $41 million in support of Proposition 6, which, if passed, would have required all plans for new bridges and tunnels to be approved in a statewide vote. That would have delayed – or killed – any hope for a new bridge.

Norton made countless speeches, gave numerous interviews across Michigan reiterating the fact the bridge was not going to cost residents anything. This was also brought to a nation-wide audience when Norton appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“Canada seems to have a great standing in Michigan, but there is concern because Michiganders, and perhaps Americans in general, are predisposed not to believe their politicians,” Norton said. “While the governor (Rick Snyder) could say, as he had for many months, that this project would cost Michigan nothing, sadly many chose to believe the Maroun ads instead. At its base, cynicism is understandable, whoever heard of free bridge, but they did seem to believe me, being from a government and country they were prone to trust.

“So at the talks, when I raised my right hand and solemnly swore on behalf of the people of Canada that this bridge would cost the state of Michigan nothing, audiences in Michigan seemed to believe it.”

In the end 60 per cent of Michigan voters turned down Proposition 6.

Ontario has begun construction of the $1.4-billion Windsor-Essex Parkway (since renamed the Herb Gray Parkway), which will extend Highway 401 in Windsor to the new international bridge. Construction of the new 125-year bridge is expected to begin in 2014, with a completion date within a decade. Canada would recoup its costs through bridge tolls.

“At the end of the day, it won’t cost Canadian taxpayers anything,” Norton said. “Bottom line, we wouldn’t get the bridge if we weren’t willing to do this. We could be stubborn, cross our fingers and hope for the eternal life of an 83-year-old bridge, on which certainly the Canadian automotive economy depends, but even beyond that, so many jobs depend.

“We concluded that it’s a Canadian contribution to the future of North American manufacturing, not just Ontario. We shouldn’t be willing to bear the risk of a sudden disruption and no capacity. So it’s worth paying for.”