A decisive political vote on whether Michigan remains committed to building the $5.3-billion DRIC downriver bridge project remains on hold despite a powerful push Tuesday by Canada’s Transportation Minister John Baird who travelled to the state capitol of Lansing.
Baird and Associate Assistant Deputy Minister Helena Borges testified for 45 minutes at a hearing of the state’s Senate transportation committee which over the last few weeks has gathered information on the debate.
The linchpin to the minister’s presentation was to clear up misconceptions around the Canadian government’s offer of $550 million to pay Michigan’s share of DRIC costs in exchange for political approval.
Several senators have voiced concerns about cost overruns falling on Michigan taxpayers, but Baird said a new public-private bridge authority selected to build and maintain the infrastructure will cover shortfalls between toll revenues and construction cost payments.
“Let me be perfectly clear, since Michigan will not be funding the project, Michigan taxpayers will bear no risks in this transaction,” he said.
Since the Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1988, two-way trade between Canada and the U.S. has tripled to nearly $2 billion per day, Baird told the committee. The Windsor-Detroit border handles 30 per cent of Canada-U.S. trade ($130 billion dollars per year) — almost as much commercial traffic as the next three busiest bridge crossings combined, he said.
“There is no evidence of anything slowing down,” Baird said, “which is why we need to build the new bridge.”
The state’s House of Representatives a few weeks ago voted in favour of the DRIC project but it needs final approval from the Senate. But the issue has stalled pending the transportation committee hearings. It is believed at a meeting next Tuesday the committee will bring forward and support a motion backing the project.
A vote in the full senate could happen as early as next week or not for several more weeks, sources said on Wednesday.
Vice-chairman of the transportation committee Senator Ray Basham (D — Taylor) said Baird’s visit and testimony “absolutely” made a difference in winning support.
“I really thought it helped,” Basham said. “It was not a silver bullet, but they answered all the questions and hopefully put to bed any concerns we had on our committee.”
Baird and Borges did “an excellent job,” said Bill Shreck, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, a partner in the DRIC effort. “We thought they were very persuasive and well received by the Senate transportation committee.”
In his testimony, Baird denied that the Canadian government opposes the Ambassador Bridge and its competing proposal to build a twin span. But the bridge has no right to stop the Canadian government from operating its own bridge and the company to date keeps dragging its feet in securing environmental approvals and permits for its twin span, he said.
Bridge company president Dan Stamper appeared briefly at the hearing following Baird and Borges. He asked for a future opportunity to counter the information provided by the Canadian officials, noting there are existing treaties and bridge company rights to operate without increased competition.