By Tom Walsh
Detroit Free Press Business Writer
Now that President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department have officially chosen to accept Canada’s gift of a free bridge at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing by issuing a permit for the project, Michigan’s obligation is to put it to good use.
That’s not a given in a state that has squandered or underutilized assets in the past. More on that later.
First, we can celebrate the green light given to the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) for what it is — a symbol of a region looking forward, investing in growth.
“For those of us who are in the economic development business, it gives us something to sell. We now will have a visible symbol and an actual tool to make it a lot easier to attract companies that are involved in international trade,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
David Egner, head of the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan, said research has shown that Michigan could create a series of logistics hubs that would yield 66,000 new jobs — partly by capturing business that now flows through congested Chicago — but only if a new border crossing provides capacity to handle more traffic.
“It could change the game, including for the west side of the state,” Egner said. “This is a perfect east-west partnership, because today if manufacturers on the west side ship through Chicago, it sits for three days before it moves.”
While border crossing data show that Ambassador Bridge traffic has not fully recovered from the slump after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NITC project suggests a brighter future, a region on the move.
“The past trajectory of the bridge traffic has mirrored the trajectory of the Big Three automakers,” Baruah said. “As we see their sales start to spike, their challenge is that if the capacity of the bridge between the U.S. and Canada is constrained, then where are they going to add future capacity to build their cars, now that their trajectory is higher?”
The near-term stimulus of construction jobs is important, too. “This bridge is going to take years to build and will probably have, at various times, tens of thousands of people working on it,” Baruah said. “Even though those are short-term jobs, they feed a narrative of good things happening in Michigan.”
When I asked Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday whether Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun might now be ready to drop efforts to block the NITC project, Snyder said he hasn’t seen any such signals yet, but he is open to discussion on how the public and private bridges could coexist.
“You hope at some point that people recognize this project’s going to move forward because it’s for the benefit of Michiganders,” Snyder said. “I’m always open, and I hope the Canadians are open to sitting down to talk. This is one of those milestones that hopefully reinforces the fact that this project should happen and will happen.”
Whatever tack Moroun takes with the existing bridge, it’s crucial that Michigan’s business and civic leaders hunker down seriously to maximize the benefits of the NITC by laying the groundwork for new industries and for expanding existing businesses.
A classic example of failing to capitalize on a major asset has been the region’s lackluster effort to take advantage of the outstanding McNamara Terminal and other upgrades at Detroit Metro Airport.
It has been 11 years now since the 122-gate, $1.2-billion McNamara Terminal opened, winning raves from travelers and the news media alike. But once visitors leave Metro Airport’s baggage claim area, they are peeved to discover they must fork over $70 for a ride to a downtown Detroit business hotel, or nearly $90 to get to Birmingham.
How can a region that’s serious about business and growth put up with the lack of even a mediocre system of shuttles to get people from the airport to major lodging and conference spots in the region? Thankfully, the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau is working on a proposal to improve airport transit. Let’s hope they come up with something workable — and soon.
Meanwhile, we should look at the new bridge the same way we look at the airport: It’s a tremendous potential asset, but it must leveraged.
Just as there’s been much talk about the growth potential of an Aerotropolis development area between Metro and Willow Run airports, there has also been much talk of maximizing the busy border crossing to attract more logistics and freight business.
“There are bunches of plans on paper, but nothing that’s been done in an aggregated manner that makes sense and that the state has embraced,” Egner said.
By the time shovels are in the ground for NITC construction, let’s hope there’s movement on how best to take advantage of it.