Canada to pay for bridge customs plaza, U.S. to operate

Gary Heinlein, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Canada will pay for the construction of a U.S. customs plaza on a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor while the U.S. government finances its operations, under a deal announced Wednesday.

A Canadian public-private partnership overseeing the bridge project will pay for building the customs plazas on both sides of the border and that the United States would staff, operate and maintain the Detroit customs plaza.

“This arrangement is good for Canada and for Canadians. It ensures that all the elements of the project will ultimately be delivered through a public-private partnership,” said Transport Minister Lisa Raitt at the announcement in Ottawa, Ontario. “It also allows Canada and Michigan to move the project forward immediately to its next steps which include further design work and property acquisition on the U.S. side of the border.”

Raitt said the proposed span “is of vital importance to the economic prosperity of communities and businesses on both sides of the border.” It’s one of Canada’s top infrastructure projects, she added.

The agreement appears to remove the largest lingering hurdle for the $2.1-billion New International Trade Crossing span over the Detroit River. The publicly financed bridge is scheduled to be built two miles south of the privately owned and operated Ambassador Bridge.

The Canadian government has agreed to fund construction of the bridge and be repaid for the building of the Detroit customs plaza through toll revenue. The Obama administration has made a commitment to staff and to equip the plaza at an estimated cost of $100 million the first year and $50 million annually afterward.

The Obama administration previously said it was difficult to commit an estimated $250 million in the federal budget for building the Detroit plaza because of a congressional prohibition against earmarked money for certain projects.

The Detroit News first reported this month that an agreement was close after several months of talks. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told The Detroit News this month that a deal between the two countries on funding the customs plaza was close.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in an interview Wednesday that Congress will need to approve the funding for the new customs plaza, but won’t have to act until closer to the bridge’s completion, scheduled for 2020. She said she didn’t think it would be a problem.

“The bridge has to be built first,” Stabenow said. “We all want to get this done as soon as possible.”

Canada wanted assurances that the United States would staff the customs plaza if it built the facility.

The key was getting a commitment from the Obama administration to fund the operations and equip the plaza. Stabenow praised the Canadian government for “working creatively with us to solve this last roadblock.”

“The final stage (of the talks) was just to make sure that everybody was clear that the United States would, of course, pay for the staffing and operations,” she said.

She praised the bridge as key to national security and Michigan’s economic future.

“This is really is the final critical step to be able to get this done,” Stabenow said.

She said the precise cost of the estimated $250 million to $300 million customs plaza could change before the final design is completed.

Officials from both countries explored other options but with the Obama administration refusing to propose funding and the Republican-led House refusing to add funds for years, there was little choice, supporters said.

While touring a high-tech plant in Lansing on Wednesday U.S. Sen. Gary Peters mildly criticized the Obama administration’s reluctance to fund more of the U.S. share of the project, but welcomed the deal.

“I certainly would have preferred to have the federal government being there. … putting up funds for the customs plaza but I think the important thing right now is that it’s moving forward,” Peters said.

“The key right now is to have … a commitment from the federal government to make sure that plaza’s fully-staffed as is necessary to operate it and continue to expand trade between Canada and the United States,” added the Bloomfield Township Democrat, calling the bridge “an incredibly important infrastructure project” for the state and federal governments.

Gov. Rick Snyder released a statement saying he’s “appreciative of the work of our partners in Congress and in the Canadian government to ensure that the New International Trade Crossing — important to both of our countries — continues to move forward.” He pledged to keep pushing the federal government for funds for the customs plazas there and at the Blue Water bridge in Port Huron.

As designed, the bridge would provide direct access between I-75/I-94 in Michigan and Ontario Highway 401 through a parkway in Windsor. Formal talks between to two countries toward construction of the bridge began a decade ago, and a feasibility study was completed in 2008.

The crossing between Detroit and Windsor carries more than one-quarter of all merchandise trade between the two countries, currently by way of the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. The two countries estimate goods and services worth an amount approaching $2 billion flow between the U.S. and Canada daily.

The process to build a bridge began in 2001, and a 2004 joint U.S.-Canada study concluded that additional border-crossing capacity was needed for reasons including increasing traffic volume, economic security and national security concerns. The State Department approved a permit for the new bridge in 2013.

Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a required permit for a publicly owned bridge from Detroit to Canada — clearing another key hurdle in the high-profile project.

In addition, a federal judge in Washington in 2014 rejected a legal motion to force the Coast Guard to issue a permit to Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who wanted to build a second span across the Detroit River to handle traffic while it repairs the Ambassador so it can compete with the publicly financed bridge.

Originally posted by The Detroit News