Vander Doelen: Canada’s Bridge To Detroit

By Chris Vander Doelen

Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, caused an amusing stir over the new Windsor-Detroit bridge before heading off to his new diplomatic posting in Chicago.

If you support the idea of a new publicly owned crossing between Canada and the U.S., Norton’s mild comments were bland and commonsense. But if you’re against a new bridge they might have been upsetting.

Those funding delays in Washington, which are said to be dragging its feet on funding a $220 million traffic plaza on the U.S. side of the project, don’t mean a thing, Norton told the Detroit Free Press.

Canada intends to start buying the land for the $2.2-billion bridge this spring anyway, Norton said. And it will do so even if the Obama administration doesn’t come through with its share of the money in time, which Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder has worried about in public.

Canada will simply foot the entire bill until Washington does what it’s promised, Norton pledged. As he pointed out, the Canadian side is already paying for “fifteen-sixteenths” of the cost of the project up front. (The American side will pay back its half with tolls over the next few decades).

Financing the whole ball of wax up front, including the U.S. plaza and approach ramps, wouldn’t hurt us enough to notice. In fact Canada would be delighted to pay it all and cut out some of the negotiating hassles.

But I’ve been informed by people close to the talks that Canada would never be allowed to own the U.S. side of the plaza for important legal reasons. So that’s out.

After Norton’s comments, you could almost hear the air going out of the bridge’s opponents one more time. Norton’s comments went international, making the news from Washington to Ottawa and points afar.

Lots of business people are keeping a close eye on the project. Some are angling to get a piece of the construction contracts. Others are eying investment opportunities that will materialize once traffic starts moving faster through Windsor and Detroit.

And some people simply want to see it fail.

The “bridge to nowhere” crowd – and their Canadian cousins, the “road to nowhere” club, which opposes construction of the Herb Gray Parkway – are bitterly disappointed at any suggestion that the project is really going ahead. So Norton’s comments sent them into an amusing tizzy.

The anti-bridgers (Bridge deniers? Crossing skeptics?) seem to hope that the lack of visible action on the ground means serious problems must be hidden behind the scenes. Could the bridge be doomed after all? they say hopefully to anyone who will listen.

No. From what I’ve been hearing since autumn, preparatory work on the New International Trade Crossing has been moving along well since the project was green-lighted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama’s office last year.

However, the work so far consists almost entirely of the laying of legal groundwork, which can’t be photographed and doesn’t make news. You can’t do a good TV standup in front of a legal brief or an empty office.

Remember all the lengthy delays that plagued the @HGParkway? (as it’s known on Twitter). Before serious construction started on that project, the delays dragged on for years. The critics also hoped aloud then that it wouldn’t go ahead.

It takes months of legal work to form the necessary bi-national corporations involved in an endeavor such as this one. It takes months to draw up the agreements, months to hire the staff.

After that there will be months more spent choosing contractors, then architects and engineers. Then months more delay lining up equipment, ordering custom steel shapes. (From China! The deniers claim. Not true. It will be North American).

And that doesn’t even include the time involved in purchasing and expropriating 1,000 separate parcels of land, some of which belong to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun and family.

You know what that means: lawsuits on top of lawsuits once the expropriation wheels start turning. (In the U.S., they call expropriation “condemnation”).

Moroun once fought a minor expropriation on his bridge plaza for 32 years in the courts. So you know what his people will do when land he bought in Delray to block competitors is taken to build a larger new bridge.

Before the steel starts going up we’re going to hear many more claims that the NITC project is delayed, or in limbo – or that they’re shocked the project is still alive.

Prediction: after the bridge is under construction in 2017 or so, the same people will probably claim there are serious deficiencies in the footings and the safety of the structure.

After it’s open in 2020 they’ll claim it should never have been built. After it’s a year old they’ll claim traffic loads aren’t meeting projections, the bridge is losing money and the federal loans won’t be paid off.

In advance of all those wild claims to come, let me thank the deniers now for providing us media folk with such excellent news fodder stretching so far into the future.

And I’ll see you on the bridge.

From the Windsor Star