Customs plaza for new Detroit bridge hits a roadblock on federal funding

By Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press Washington Staff

WASHINGTON — What Buffalo needed in 2011 to move ahead with a decade-long plan to twin the Peace Bridge into Canada was a financial commitment for $250 million from the U.S. government to pay for a bigger, better customs plaza on the New York side.

It never came.

In Port Huron, a customs plaza expansion project to reduce backups at the Blue Water Bridge began in 2002. More than 100 homes and commercial properties were demolished to make way. But as of last year, the federal government said it didn’t have the $145 million needed to finish the work — and officials there continue to wait.

In Lewiston and Alexandria Bay, N.Y.; in Dunseith, N.D., and in Brownsville, Texas, customs plaza projects at border crossings have been stalled for years due to lack of federal funding. Budget cutbacks, changing priorities and an overwhelming need at high-traffic Mexican crossings have shifted political attention, overwhelmed annual appropriations and sapped congressional will.

Those fiscal realities are becoming clear to supporters of the proposed New International Trade Crossing in Detroit. While they remain publicly optimistic about securing U.S. funding for a new $250-million customs plaza — a commitment Gov. Rick Snyder identified as key to moving forward with the project — their chances of doing so in the short term are murky at best. To get funding, the NITC will have to jump ahead of others that have been in line a lot longer than Detroit.

“It becomes a battle for who has more clout to go after what limited funds there are from the federal government,” said Z. Kris Wisniewski, with the Eastern Border Transportation Coalition, a group that works on U.S-Canada border issues.

Which may be another concern for supporters of the NITC. On the Democratic side, Michigan’s clout is waning somewhat, with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn — two of the state’s most powerful boosters — leaving at the end of the year. So far, it has fallen to U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, to propose legislation funding the customs plaza, though it’s not likely going far in a Republican-controlled House.

New heads of Homeland Security and Transportation could add to the confusion. And a new U.S. ambassador to Canada has not yet been confirmed.

Republicans in the Michigan delegation, meanwhile, have been silent on the funding so far. Except, that is, for U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, whose district includes the Blue Water Bridge and who has been trying to get funding for it for years.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “I have never taken a very hopeful position about the NITC because I represent the Blue Water Bridge. We have no money for a plaza. … The Canadians have built their plaza. They keep looking at us like, ‘What? Come on!’ ”

Limited funds available

It’s not that the federal government doesn’t fund Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. Last week, the General Services Administration (GSA) revealed as part of President Barack Obama’s budget request a list of three border stations — two along the Mexican border in California and a third long-standing project at Alexandria Bay in New York — which could split $420 million.

Michigan officials, meanwhile, seemed satisfied that CBP, part of the Homeland Security Department, asked for $486 million for unspecified construction and facility maintenance, though much of that goes to smaller projects if Congress agrees. Most of the larger stations, including Detroit’s, are owned or leased by the GSA.

Dan Tangherlini, head of the GSA, told the Free Press last week that his agency and the Departments of State and Transportation are working to assuage the concerns of Canadian officials who have promised to pay the lion’s share of the $2-billion bridge, even without an outright commitment.

But to eventually get funding, officials must confront a network of border stations and customs plazas with vast needs.

In three of the last four years, there has been no funding at all for GSA’s customs plazas. CBP refused to release a list of priority projects it compiles each year with GSA, but the roster is known to be in the dozens. Wisniewski’s group said that along the northern border with Canada — America’s biggest trading partner — at least nine crossings are initial priorities, where traffic delays can cost millions in lost production.

Detroit’s project — with ground not broken and a new bridge years in the future — isn’t believed to be on the list, a situation Ron Rienas, general manager at the Buffalo and Ft. Erie Public Bridge Authority, can identify with.

Over 11 years, he said, Peace Bridge officials wrestled to get federal clearances for their project, the vast majority of which would be paid for by the authority. But when it became clear in 2011 that no federal funds would be coming in the near future, the authority adopted a more modest proposal.

Last month, it unveiled a program allowing U.S. customs officers in Canada to pre-inspect trucks entering the U.S., and it is getting by with a less robust plaza expansion itself.

“The bottom line is that the northern border projects, the large ones — Port Huron, Buffalo, Lewiston, Alexandria Bay — are all in the same boat,” Rienas said.

“There’s no point beating our heads against the wall.”

A matter of fairness

A commitment to the NITC plaza may seem a minuscule point in a project worth billions. But it’s not.

The Canadian government is moving ahead with plans to purchase land needed for the bridge, which is perhaps the No. 1 infrastructure project in the pipeline as far as that nation’s priorities. In Michigan, the project enjoys widespread support among elected officials and businesspeople who expect it to spark development and put thousands of people to work.

It also will serve as an important trade link between the two countries, especially for the region’s dominant automobile industry, which sends parts back and forth across the border as vehicles are assembled.

For many in Canada and the U.S., the NITC is seen as a way to bypass the existing Ambassador Bridge and bottlenecks on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. But finding a company that would design, build and run the new bridge — and pay back the Canadian investment — gets potentially more difficult when there is uncertainty about who is on the hook for the customs plaza.

“The major step that would be taken later this year or early next would be to summon bids from consortia that would finance, build and maintain the actual span. Their investment will be recouped by toll revenues,” said Roy Norton, Canada’s counsel general in Detroit. “If by early ’15 there hasn’t been that signal (that the U.S. will pay for the customs plaza), it could cause delay.”

And delay means lost revenue for the vendor to begin recouping its investment.

Gov. Snyder has called it a matter of simple fairness that the federal government pay for the customs plaza. No one at CBP responded to questions about whether they view it the same way.

The case for Detroit

Detroit is often referred to as the busiest trade crossing in North America, but it’s not. Not anymore.

According the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2009, it fell below the crossing at Laredo, Texas, in terms of the value of shipments across the border. As of 2012, it remained No. 2.

Generally speaking, that may help explain the billions that have been spent improving customs plazas and crossings along the southern border, where there are dozens of priority projects: At San Ysidro near San Diego — the busiest border crossing in the U.S. with 20 million vehicle passengers a year — $323 million has been committed to a huge expansion, and another $217 has been requested.

This year, Congress funded San Ysidro and another project, for $62 million, in Laredo.

But businesspeople along the southern border say they’ve run into the same problem keeping up with demand for new facilities and, maybe more important, staffing. Monica Weisberg-Stewart, a shopkeeper in McAllen, Texas, who works with the Texas Border Coalition, said the group was finally able to convince Congress to allow five pilot projects for which municipalities or businesses will provide funds for staff and infrastructure.

All five are along the southern border, which raises the politically thorny issue of having a newly announced project leapfrog others already in the pipeline.

“It all deals with money and the lack thereof,” said Weisberg-Stewart. “There’s a long line, and people who were supposed to be funded before had their money stalled. You’d have other states extremely upset (if another project got that funding).”

Detroit, the thinking goes, is different: a huge new bridge, with the Canadian government picking up most of the tab, securing one of the most vital trade crossings in the world.

Norton, Canada’s representative in Detroit, is leaving for a similar post in Chicago soon but says he will keep an eye on the NITC. He said there is “plenty of time down the road” to get funding. What he’s looking for now is something more of a promise than a guarantee.

“To be sure, money’s tight. It’s tight in Canada, too,” he said. “But this is the most important border crossing” with America’s “best customer.”

“An offline commitment that they take responsibility for the customs plaza would be enough for us,” he said. “We’re prepared to take the government of the United States of America at its word.”

Originally posted by the Detroit Free Press