By JOSEPH SZCZESNY
Of The Oakland Press
Residents of Southeast Michigan and Southern Ontario share more than a love of hockey.
Economies on both sides of the historic border are intertwined, meaning officials from Port Huron to Race Point and Detroit Light worry about the same issues, such as pollution, water levels, security and whether it is time to build another bridge over the Detroit River.
On the Canadian side, it’s become an article of faith that a second bridge — the Detroit River International Cross or DRIC Bridge — is needed.
“Roughly 28 percent of the trade between the U.S. and Canada, $150 billion, crosses the river between Windsor and Detroit on infrastructure built by our grandparents,” Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis said during a telephone interview with The Oakland Press.
Francis and much of the political establishment through Windsor and the province of Ontario have campaigned for the DRIC bridge and have offered to loan the the state of Michigan $550 million to build the new bridge about a mile from the existing Ambassador Bridge, which carries most of the freight traffic across the Detroit River.
The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which is owned jointly by the city of Detroit and the city of Windsor, also is one of the busiest crossing along the U.S.-Canada border, and a century-old railroad tunnel now owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway also is open for freight traffic.
Support here at home
The DRIC Bridge has support on the U.S. side of the border. The Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group, both of which have interconnected operations in Southeast Michigan and Windsor, have endorsed the DRIC Bridge.
General Motors Corp. not only has endorsed an additional crossing but explicitly endorsed the DRIC, which is favored by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in legislation approved by the Michigan House of Representatives as well as the Michigan Department of Transportation and the construction unions.
However, while the Canadian support for the bridge appears quite solid, it is not as broad in Michigan.
Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, said after looking over the traffic studies supplied by Warren-based Ambassador Bridge that she questions whether there is enough cross-border traffic to justify construction of a new bridge. The Michigan State Senate is considered one of the last major barriers to construction of the DRIC bridge.
“It’s far from resolved. The Senate is trying to be reasonsable and accountable,” Cassis said.
“We’ve got to do our own due diligence. This is one of the largest projects anyone has ever seen. We’re being asked to spend between $2 billion and $5 billion.”
But if there weren’t enough traffic to generate the tolls required to retire the bonds for the DRIC, Michigan taxpayers would wind up paying for the bridge, Cassis said. Other Republican senators also have challenged the need for a new bridge, including Senate Majority Leader Michael Bishop.
Ambassador Bridge owner under fire
Dan Stamper, president of the Ambassador Bridge Co., said in an interview that traffic across the Ambassador Bridge has been reduced in the past decade and effectively neutralized the economic demand for a new bridge.
“It can’t support itself. The tolls are going to be four times what they are now (on our bridge), or they are going to have to be subsidized by taxpayers or it isn’t going to happen,” Stamper said.
“They can’t pay the interest from tolls for maybe 40 or 50 years, but until then taxpayers are going to have to subsidize the DRIC bridge,” Stamper said. Even the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, which competes with the Ambassador Bridge for traffic, has lived off a steady stream of subsidies since it was expanded to two spans in the 1990s.
Moreover, the Ambassador Bridge Co. has spent several hundred million dollars of its own money in the last several years on both sides of the border in preparation for the construction of a second bridge alongside the existing bridge. “We’ve already spent $500 million getting to where we are today. Whatever money we need we can raise,” Stamper said.
“The U.S. State Department has written to us saying we have the right to build or expand or twin our bridge,” Stamper added, noting the Ambassador Bridge operates under the terms of a special treaty negotiated by the U.S. and Canadian governments in 1921.
However, the DRIC bridge will require what’s known as a “presidential permit,” since it will span an international border. Stamper said the privately held Ambassador Bridge Co. will most certain sue in federal court to prevent President Obama from issuing the necessary permit.
The DRIC bridge also faces challenges from other groups on both sides of the border, including the Sierra Club of Ontario, he said.
And the intentions of the Ambassador Bridge’s management and owner, Matty Moroun, have come under fierce attack from Canadians.
In a provocative speech at a luncheon at the Detroit Economic Club on May 17, then-Canadian Transport Minister John Baird said Moroun and The Ambassador Bridge Co. have gamed the system.
“The Morouns have not submitted any applications to build their bridge,” Baird said. “They have not begun to meet environmental approvals. The Morouns have not even started to prepare to begin to do anything at all about building their new bridge.
“On a scale of 1 to 100, they are at a zero,” he said. “They have no approvals in place. They were talking about the twin span 20 years ago. It takes years to get all the environmental approvals you need in Canada.”
‘DRIC bridge is shovel ready
That’s in sharp contrast to DRIC, which has obtained all permits and approvals on both sides of the border, except for the presidential permit, which cannot be applied for until the Michigan Legislature approves the DRIC, Baird added.
DRIC supporters in Michigan and Canada have said the Ambassador Bridge Co. is fighting a second bridge to maintain its lucrative, cross-border monopoly.
Stamper contends all the delays on the twin bridge have been created by the Canadians and their penchant for bureaucracy.
“We filed an environmental impacts statement with the Canadians in 2007,” he said.
“The facts are that the Ambassador Bridge Co. has all the property it needs in Windsor to manage the traffic from two bridges. The key problem has been Customs Canada has been slow to develop a 25-year-long plan for managing the traffic at the border.”
Windsor Mayor Francis, however, said the situation is more complicated, noting the off ramps from an expanded Ambassador Bridge crossing would saddle one of the city’s most thickly settled areas with more traffic, and more importantly, vehicle pollution.
Critics also contend the the Ambassador Bridge Co. has used its political muscle to limit competition.
Through the years, the Ambassador Bridge Co. had developed close ties to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his mother, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who was a major supporter of the Twin Bridge. The Morouns also have given money to several other political figures, including Bishop and Democratic gubernatorial hope Virg Bernero.
Stamper denies the Ambassador Bridge Co. is trying to buy influence with its political contributions.
“James Blanchard is a paid consultant for DRIC bridge for years. We educate folks with facts and they make up their own minds. We tried to correct the record. It shouldn’t be this hard to spend $1 billion,” Stamper said, noting the construction of a new bridge next to the existing Ambassador Bridge will create as many as 4,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, the debates rolls on with no sign of climax.
Sen. Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods, in an e-mail to The Oakland Press said, “I do support the DRIC and would like to see the project move forward. The arguments that the funds the Canadian government are willing to put up will somehow come back to cost Michigan taxpayers have not swayed me.
“In general, I’ve found the rhetoric being used to oppose the DRIC construction to be scare tactics.
Also, there seems to be a broad base of support for this project from former governors (James) Blanchard and (John) Engler, to L. Brooks Patterson to the Canadian government to the tradespeople who would see jobs from the project.
“Such a coalition of leaders and industry is not a common occurrence, and I think we can all see the benefit that not only the construction of the bridge would have for our workers, but also the permanent jobs created once the project is completed.
“Furthermore, a recent report from the Brookings Institute ranked Detroit as fifth nationally in the amount of export jobs, surely our geographic advantages have allowed us the room to further develop our safe and efficient border with Canada to the benefit of the entire state,” Jacobs said.
Windsor Mayor Francis said another bridge also will protect the local economy from sabotage.
Terrorists could find it relatively simple to target one bridge, but attacking two would be far more difficult.
“From our perspective, it is very critical and there is the ability to have redundant capacity,” he said.
Stamper, however, said it is more likely a terrorist attack would target multiple spans, not just one. The Ambassador Bridge company also has developed a way to use a pontoon bridge to move traffic across the river if its bridge is put out of action.
“On the Canadian side everything is ready, there is a very significant level of trade that crosses the border,” Francis said. “The prosperity it brings isn’t an accident, we have prepared for it. The DRIC bridge is shovel ready. You could approve it in December and be ready to go in January. It will bring a lot of jobs and stimulus to our economy.
“The Canadian government will put up our money. All we’re doing is basically reciprocating on a friendship. Michigan has come to Canada’s assistance when we built the Blue Water Bridge. There are precedents for government-to-government cooperation. There is no prohibition.
“Mr. Moroun has a business interest and he’s trying to his protect it,” he said. “But we also need the DRIC Bridge.”