Gov. Rick Snyder blames ‘broken’ Washington for delays on Canada bridge project

By John Gallagher and Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press Staff Writers

A feisty Gov. Rick Snyder blamed a “broken” Washington, D.C., on Friday for delays in funding of a U.S. customs inspections plaza at the planned New International Trade Crossing bridge project — delays that could hold up construction of the bridge itself if not resolved.

Speaking to the Free Press editorial board, Snyder — who rarely departs from his mantra of “relentless positive action” when speaking to the news media — seemed genuinely put out by the delays.

“The U.S. government has largely taken a position that they don’t think they should pay anything for a facility for the United States government,” he said.

Asked whom the federal officials want to pay for the customs plaza where incoming vehicles would be checked by federal workers, Snyder said, “Apparently, someone other than them.”

The customs inspection plaza on the Detroit side of the NITC project would cost about $250 million, the only portion of the $2.1-billion bridge and highway interchange project that is not being paid for up front by Canada in exchange for being paid back through future tolls. If the U.S. government continues to stall on paying for that piece of the project, it could hold up progress until the issue is resolved.

“Still, there’s some time to find a resolution,” Snyder said, since actual construction work doesn’t have to begin on the plaza for a couple of years, pending land acquisition and design work. “In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to see the rest of the bridge held up over what you might describe as a somewhat difficult-to-understand attitude.”

Officials at the Federal Highway Administration said the customs plaza would be under the auspices of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Calls and e-mails to officials at the Department of Homeland Security were not immediately returned.

Canadian officials, who have agreed to pay for the rest of the project up front because of its importance to U.S.-Canadian trade, have expressed concern for some time over the delays.

In an e-mail to the Free Press on Friday, Roy Norton, Canada’s Consul General to Detroit, voiced his concerns.

“There’s been no significant progress,” Norton said in his e-mail. “Engineering studies are virtually complete; land assembly on the Michigan side will get under way in 2014 (we pay for that). But we can’t call for bidders until there’s a commitment to build the U.S. plaza.”

Snyder put part of the blame on Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun, who has been lobbying fiercely in Washington D.C. over the past year on the bridge issue. Financial disclosure records show that Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company spent $180,000 in 2013 on lobbyists in Washington on behalf of Moroun’s interests. In addition, Moroun has made significant campaign contributions to the more conservative Republican members of the Michigan delegation in Congress.

Of the delays in approving funding for the plaza, Snyder said: “It’s really hard to understand, but it’s not totally inconsistent with other behavior out of Washington.”

Canada’s Transport Minister Lisa Raitt attended Snyder’s State of the State speech Thursday night in Lansing, and Canadian officials have continued to press their case with U.S. leaders over the importance of the bridge project.

The planned six-lane NITC would be built between southwest Detroit and Windsor, about 2 miles downriver from the aging Ambassador Bridge. Because Michigan lawmakers — many of whom received campaign contributions from Moroun — have balked at paying for Michigan’s half of the span, Snyder signed an agreement with Canada in June 2012 that calls for Canada to pay up front for the bridge, including Michigan’s share of the expenses, and to be paid back through future tolls.

Moroun has fought tenaciously for years to block the project, which is expected to draw significant traffic and revenue away from his own Ambassador Bridge. Besides campaign cash and lobbying in Lansing and Washington, Moroun’s lawyers have unleashed a flurry of lawsuits challenging aspects of the NITC in Michigan and Washington, and in Canadian courts.

Because the project remains in the early planning stages, there is time to resolve the issues.

But a clearly irked Snyder said Friday: “It’s not necessarily holding up the process. It’s just making it more difficult.”

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press.