Retiring Ambassador Jacobson was key supporter in the NITC approval process

Dave Battagello
Jun 18, 2013 – 6:57 PM EDT

David Jacobson recalled Tuesday his first visit to Canada as a child when his father stopped the family Buick in the middle of the Ambassador Bridge so that his parents were sitting on the Canadian side of the border while he and his sisters in the back seat were on the American side.

It was a fond memory for the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

“If somebody told that kid, he would one day go across the same bridge as the U.S. ambassador, he would have thought they were nuts,” said Jacobson who is leaving July 15 nearly five years after being tagged by President Barack Obama for the role.

The ambassador has made several visits to the Windsor area over the that last couple of years to be among a handful of key figures – led by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder – at meetings which secured the historic agreement to build a new downriver $1-billion Detroit River bridge.

Assisting the push to build the Detroit River International Crossing bridge and working on the required approval of a U.S. presidential permit from the Obama administration for the crossing handed down a couple of months ago is cited as one of Jacobson’s top accomplishments during his tenure.

The longtime Chicago lawyer – a key Obama fundraiser and part of his presidential transition team in 2008 – wouldn’t get into specifics during an interview with The Star on discussions he had with the president or key leaders in Washington to get the DRIC bridge agreement and presidential permit finalized.

“I’ll just say the White House is very aware of this,” he said. “This is a very important piece of infrastructure for the United States.”

During meetings leading to the DRIC bridge agreement – some held in the downtown CIBC building that is home to Transport Canada’s local office – his role was mostly to serve as facilitator along with Gary Doer, Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S., Jacobson said.

“I did have some role in this, but others were more instrumental,” he said. “Ambassador Doer and I made sure everybody kept talking and understood the issues. Our job was to keep everything moving forward.

“The time for this was right. This has gone on for quite some time.”

A spokesman for Snyder’s office said Jacobson provided a critical link at the U.S. federal level which was instrumental in moving the DRIC bridge project forward.

“His involvement and support provided a valuable assurance to both Michigan and Canada that Washington understood the project’s importance,” said Ken Silfven. “The ambassador was one of the many outstanding partners who worked in good faith to get us where we are today. His insights and diplomacy helped to pave the way and we appreciate his work.”

A Canadian federal official was also complimentary to Jacobson.

“Ambassador Jacobson has been a strong advocate and supporter of the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor,” said Mark Butler of Transport Canada. “He recognizes the economic benefits that the new crossing will bring to both countries.

“Transport Canada thanks him for his contributions to the DRIC project, as well as other Canada-U.S. transportation initiatives.”

Construction of the new bridge is expected to start in 2015 following some land acquisition in Detroit and tenders being issued. Completion is targeted for 2019 or 2020.

Jacobson had vague knowledge of the bridge controversy before becoming U.S. ambassador to Canada.

It was a predecessor  – former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard – who schooled him on the Windsor-Detroit border situation where North America’s busiest trade crossing, the Ambassador Bridge, is privately owned by billionaire Matty Moroun who has doggedly fought for a decade to stop the DRIC bridge from becoming reality.

“I had some sense of it before I came to Canada,” Jacobson said. “He explained everything to me in detail and I was saying ‘no, that can’t be right. Sure enough, he was right and that got me worked up.

“There was this private ownership and everyone was unable to move forward on something that obviously is in the best interests of people in the U.S. and Canada. I’m delighted to say we are on the path to get this thing done.”

Jacobson, 61, is leaving to become vice-chairman for BMO Financial Group and will be based at its main U.S. headquarters in his hometown of Chicago.

His successor has not yet been named, although there is talk it will be Bruce Heyman, a banking executive from Chicago who was a top fundraiser in 2012 for Obama in his bid for a second term.