MOVING FORWARD: New International Trade Crossing will have huge implications for southeastern Michigan

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By Jim Kasuba
Journal Register News Service

DETROIT — After more than a decade of debate, public meetings and political campaigns for and against it, a new international bridge is on the horizon.

To be certain, the controversy over whether or not to build the New International Trade Crossing, a publicly funded bridge project between Windsor and Detroit, will continue until the first ceremonial shovel hits the ground, and most likely beyond that point.

But governments on both sides of the American-Canadian border have completed their due diligence and it appears only a matter of months until that ceremonial ground-breaking will take place about a mile south of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, which also links the United States and Canada.

In November, Michigan voters roundly rejected Proposal 6, a ballot measure that would have required voter approval of any new state-backed international bridges or tunnels. That proposal went down in flames despite a huge spending gap between the Detroit International Bridge Co., which bankrolled the petition drive that put the measure on the ballot, and the anti-Proposal 6 group. By comparison, the $1 million spent by those against Proposal 6 was a paltry sum when going up against the $31.7 million the bridge company spent trying to convince voters to approve it.

Gov. Rick Snyder said in published reports that with the defeat of the proposal, the state can now begin to move forward on the NITC, which formerly went by the name of the Detroit River International Crossing, commonly referred to as DRIC.

The new bridge would connect Windsor’s 401 Highway and I-75 in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood. Those close to the project say the next step is to get a “presidential permit,” which could happen by summer. However, with all of the delays that have occurred up to this point, no one is placing bets on a timeline. Once bridge construction gets started, the project is anticipated to be completed within five to seven years.

Mohammed Alghurabi, who served as the Michigan Department of Transportation’s senior project manager of the project when it was known as DRIC, said it’s his understanding that the permit is expected to be approved, but the exact time frame is uncertain. The permit falls under the purview of the U.S. State Department.

“The biggest hurdle (in getting the presidential permit approved) is making sure all the ‘i’s are dotted and ‘t’s are crossed when it comes to environmental clearance,” Alghurabi said. “The No. 2 issue is that they want to know about the funding.”

Up to this point, one of the biggest obstacles to getting the project started has been Detroit International Bridge Co. owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who has vowed to continue fighting it.

Company spokesman Mickey Blashfield did not return a phone call and email seeking comment for this report.

However, shortly after voters failed to approve the DIBC-backed Proposal 6, Blashfield told The Detroit News that the fight over the new bridge would continue.

“If the governmental proposal doesn’t collapse from the weight of legal and legislative scrutiny, the unstable salt mine foundations (of Snyder’s bridge) will present some serious obstacles, which should call the entire project into question,” Blashfield said. “Similar and serious financial, legal and logistical questions have already been raised regarding the viability of the NITC — questions Gov. Snyder and his administration have still refused to answer directly.”

Government officials have dismissed the salt mine issue as baseless. The new bridge, if built, would compete with the DIBC-owned Ambassador Bridge and has been the source of contention between the state and Moroun’s company for years. There have been nearly 30 lawsuits between the two sides over either the NITC or issues at the Ambassador Bridge.

State Rep. Douglas Geiss (D-Taylor), who in January 2011 reintroduced legislation to authorize construction of the new bridge, doesn’t believe Moroun will put an end to his lawsuits anytime soon.

“No amount of data or facts will sway Matty Moroun’s argument,” Geiss said. “He will say or do anything to delay construction of a bridge. The longer he delays, the more money he makes.”

Geiss cited figures estimating that the Ambassador Bridge gains about $60 million per year for each year it’s the only bridge between Detroit and Windsor, which is one reason Moroun’s critics say the billionaire can easily afford attorney fees to keep fighting the NITC. However, those same critics believe spending on TV commercials, the seemingly never-ending court battles and donations to the campaigns of various politicians throughout the state are reasons it now costs $4.75 for a passenger car to cross the bridge, the fee that went into effect May 1, 2012.

Geiss uses the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, as a prime example of an authority that knows how to oversee a bridge.

“People say that an authority can’t run a bridge, but that’s how the Mackinac Bridge is run,” Geiss said. “The Mackinac Bridge is in top-notch condition. They do continual work on the bridge, they have an exemplary safety record and it’s a much more difficult bridge to maintain.”

He also added that it’s cheaper to use the Mackinac Bridge than it is to use the Ambassador Bridge. The current toll passenger cars pay for the Mackinac Bridge is $4 per car.

Featured prominently on the Ambassador Bridge’s website is an article by “Corps!,” a publication that brands itself “Everything Business.” In an article dated Sept. 8, 2011, Matthew Moroun, the son of the bridge’s owner and vice chairman of his family’s business, spoke out against a new bridge.

In the article, Moroun scoffed at the financial case made by Canadian and Michigan officials for the $2.1 billion NITC, calling it “political math,” adding that a taxpayer treasury is needed to make this kind of project work.

However, Geiss and other bridge proponents say the NITC will be built at no cost to Michigan taxpayers. Canada has agreed to front the cost of construction and expects to recoup that money through toll collections.

Geiss sees the fact that the Canadian government is willing to spend up to $550 million to cover the costs of the U.S. portion of the project as proof that it views this second bridge as critical.

But the money fronted by the Canadians goes much further when taking into consideration that the Federal Highway Administration is allowing Canada’s expenditure for the NITC project to be used to secure federal matching funds.

According to Alghurabi, the state of Michigan appears to be on solid ground in the funding area when it comes to its presidential permit application, since the Canadian government has agreed to front the money.

One argument the Ambassador Bridge owners have made against the proposed new bridge is that there isn’t enough traffic to support it. In the “Corps!” article, Moroun said that traffic peaked in 1999 when almost 12.4 million vehicles crossed the bridge. In 2010, that number was down to 7.2 million vehicles.

Assuming a 3 percent compound annual growth rate, it would take 19 years for the Ambassador Bridge to achieve its former peak.

Even with the projections being what they are, Moroun’s company still has plans to add a second span to the Ambassador Bridge, at a projected cost of $1 billion, that would add even more capacity. On the home page of the Ambassador Bridge’s website is a photo of the bridge as it looks today, along with an artist’s rendering of what it would look like with a second span, labeled “tomorrow.”

Moroun said his company hasn’t given up on the idea of a second span, and that it will take place “sometime in the future.” He added that when the second span is opened, the old span would undergo renovations before reopening to traffic. In terms of the economics, Moroun said it’s much more expensive to repair and rehabilitate the bridge when it’s under traffic load.

In the fall, Canadian Consul General Roy Norton spoke to the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce and to the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber about the economic importance of a second bridge between the two major border cities.

Norton said the project is critical to maintaining the free flow of goods along the Detroit-Windsor corridor. One-quarter of the $689 billion in trade between Canada and the United States in 2011 passed over the Ambassador Bridge. Although not believed to be obsolete, the now 84-year-old bridge is the only freight crossing between Detroit and Windsor, with the next closest 60 miles to the north at the Blue Water Bridge, which crosses near Port Huron to Sarnia, Ontario.

Norton said the age of the Ambassador Bridge coupled with increasing tolls and traffic volume are the reasons Canada stepped up to finance a $550 million freeway interchange on the Michigan side of the NITC.

The Canadian government’s agreement to pay for cash-strapped Michigan’s portion of the project is one of the most unique aspects of the deal, and in all likelihood a second bridge would not be possible without it.

Norton said that since 1972, when Congress put the responsibility of U.S.-Canada border crossings on states rather than the federal government, every project has been jointly financed by the Canadian government and the state the crossing is in.

“Maintaining a death watch on an 83-year-old bridge and crossing our fingers for its eternal life didn’t seem like a very sound way to proceed,” Norton said.

He also answered critics who say another bridge isn’t necessary because traffic counts on the Ambassador Bridge are down. Norton said that while traffic counts are lower relative to all-time highs, they’re quickly rebounding from the global economic crisis of 2008 and are projected to continue growing.

But traffic issues aside, Norton said the critics’ argument doesn’t address that the Ambassador Bridge is aging and the fact that it is the sole crossing at the Detroit-Windsor trade nexus.

The DIBC has made public statements criticizing the use of public money to build a second international bridge, saying that it should be the private sector taking the lead. Norton said that, in fact, the bridge will be built and financed by a private contractor and in the event toll projections don’t live up to expectations, the Canadian government is the party that stands to lose.

Geiss also emphasizes the fact that this bridge is a public-private partnership. A private company will bid to build and maintain the bridge for a period of years, most likely a 30-year contract, he said.

“These companies believe they can recoup their investment, plus make a profit,” Geiss said. “The people of the state of Michigan can feel a further sense that they will not be in a position that they will have to pay back the cost of the bridge. If it is not a good business model, you would get zero proposals from private industry. We don’t expect that to happen. If you get three or four proposals, (the project) has been well-vetted.”

The other point to take into consideration, supporters say, is the bottleneck created at the Ambassador Bridge, especially at the Canadian side. Once the traffic reaches Windsor, drivers are faced with 16 stoplights before reaching the highway. Geiss said that would be akin to dropping off traffic on Telegraph Road in the Downriver area, using several miles of local roads and facing numerous traffic lights before reaching the freeway, tying up traffic along the way.

“You may not see it when you go to the bridge, but Ford, GM and Chrysler monitor that crossing,” Geiss said. “If it gets backed up, they will divert to the Blue Water Bridge or another crossing. The economic engine of Michigan and Ontario is tied to that crossing.”

Although the building of a second Detroit-Windsor bridge has far-reaching implications for the entire region, no particular group of residents will feel the impact more than the residents of Delray, the southwest Detroit neighborhood just north of River Rouge that extends east to the Detroit River, west to Fort Street and I-75, and north to Dragoon Street at Fort Wayne.

The once-thriving community of 30,000 people in the 1930s has shrunk to about 3,000 people today, an area of numerous burned-out and abandoned buildings populated by a tough group of people who remain in Delray for a variety of reasons.

“There are people who want to live here because they have generations of family who grew up here, or because it’s close to the river, or close to their jobs,” said Scott Brines, president of the Community Benefits Coalition, a grass-roots organization formed to protect residents from the potentially harmful impact a second bridge would inflict upon the Delray neighborhood. “We need to take care of people close to transportation and heavy industry. People are going to live here no matter what.”

Brines said the coalition is composed of about 500 residents, businesses, churches and organizations who stand united that when the project gains final approval, either the residents be offered buyouts — all of them, not just those in the footprint of the bridge — or else an investment be made in the neighborhood, one that targets air quality, abandoned buildings and city services.

For years, Delray residents involved in the preservation and improvement of their neighborhood have taken part in monthly community meetings hosted by the Michigan Department of Transportation, meetings that offered information about the bridge project as it proceeded through various stages of planning, and seeking input as to how the building of a new bridge could take concerns of Delray residents to heart.

Brines and other Delray residents are no Pollyannas. They realize that a project of this magnitude is going to have some negative impacts on their neighborhood, but one of their goals is to look for solutions that will lessen those impacts, such as increased air pollution from idling trucks. The coalition believes the new bridge and Delray residents can mutually coexist and even benefit from one another.

One of the suggestions his group has made to bridge planners is that they go directly to the source of pollution by requiring that trucks be retrofitted so they produce less pollution.

“In (Los Angeles) ports private developers retrofitted trucks and it took 90 percent of the particulate out of the air,” Brines said. “You can give a credit for new or retrofitted engines and if not they will pay a little more. This would greatly help the community.”

One of the reasons bridge proponents say Delray may not be left to languish has to do with improving the image of Michigan. The last thing bridge builders want to do, they argue, is to build a beautiful new bridge that connects to a slum neighborhood, which is the last view travelers see when they leave the state and the first image when they enter it.

“It’s a black eye on Michigan and Detroit,” Brines said. “How could you let that happen? When you go across the river, Canada has taken great strides to improve the quality of life and the environment to make the area beautiful.”

Brines said the hope is if the government won’t step in to improve and beautify the area, perhaps the bridge’s private developer will. Many Delray residents feel abandoned by the city of Detroit, he said, and don’t hold out a lot of hope that the financially strapped city will put much effort into neighborhood improvements.

“We are dealing with a city in crisis,” Brines said. “We have so many houses that are abandoned — houses that are burned and ravaged, and stripped of their resources. We’ve also had lot of speculators, businesses buying up properties, one of which is the (Detroit International) Bridge Co.”

Right now, Delray finds itself like everyone else with a stake in the bridge — waiting on approval of the presidential permit. However, as might be expected, there’s considerably more anticipation with Delray residents surrounding the length of time it will take for final approval.

Brines said the community expects at least five years of the building process.

“That’s a hardship,” Brines said of the lengthy period of increased noise, dust and traffic blockages that are involved in such a major project. “The longer we wait, the worse it gets. A lot of us are struggling to see how we can come out on top.”