DRIC permeates Mackinac; Big 4, candidates state cases

A proposed new Detroit River bridge was the subject of discussion, debate and lobbying during last week’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

With the state Senate preparing for a second week of committee debate on legislation that would green-light Michigan’s end of the joint U.S.-Canadian project, gubernatorial candidates staked out their position on the proposed bridge.

Chrysler Group L.L.C. CEO Sergio Marchionne also reiterated his company’s support for the publicly owned span during the Detroit Regional Chamber‘s event that attracts business and civic leaders and policymakers to the island.

The Michigan Department of Transportation on Friday released revenue estimates it previously said it planned to keep secret to protect the competitive bid process on the $5.3 billion Detroit River International Crossing that would link Ontario’s Highway 401 and I-75 in Detroit.

The agency estimates a new bridge would collect $60 million in toll revenue its first year based on a predicted daily average of 18,700 cars and trucks — a traffic estimate criticized as overly optimistic by some infrastructure analysts and by the privately owned Detroit International Bridge Co. that runs the Ambassador Bridge.

That bridge is believed to generate $60 million annually right now.

MDOT also promised that the bridge cost would be borne by the private sector and Canada, and Michigan taxpayers wouldn’t be exposed to construction costs or any risk if the project defaulted because traffic estimates failed to match reality.

Tolls are supposed to pay for the bridge’s financing debt and maintenance costs. It would be owned by both nations but operated by the private sector under the current plan.

The private bridge company, owned by Grosse Pointe trucking industrialist Manuel Moroun, says that building DRIC about two miles from the Ambassador Bridge is unneeded and unfair government competition. He has ongoing litigation opposing DRIC and also related to his own stalled effort to twin his bridge, something opposed by Canada.

The bridge company on Friday said its May traffic was up 18 percent compared to a year ago, but noted that May 2009 was its worst crossing number since 1984.

DRIC’s backers have predicted the new span would eventually siphon about 34 percent of all the border traffic between Detroit and Port Huron. MDOT officials have said they believe the bridge company earns enough money that it can afford to lose some to a state-controlled crossing.

The opposition to DRIC or its enabling legislation is shared, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, by most of candidates for governor.

Republican Attorney General Mike Cox said at the conference that he worries the bridge could fail financially and would hurt the state’s bond rating.

“I don’t rule out a public bridge, but we don’t know enough about it right now,” said Cox, who said he has accepted campaign contributions from the Ambassador Bridge owners.

State Sen. Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, who also has taken Ambassador Bridge contributions, said he believes another bridge is less of a need than other problems in Michigan.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, said he favors a public-private partnership to build a second bridge, using private money, but said it’s just a piece of a transportation hub that Southeast Michigan needs to form through investments in additional areas. He said he’s taken Ambassador Bridge owner financial contributions.

Republican Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder said Michigan “should be a transportation hub,” but he has questions that need to be answered about the public-private partnership model. He said he hasn’t taken money from any special interests.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat, said he opposes the DRIC-related legislation as written, but thinks there is a need for a second span. He and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said they have received money from the Ambassador Bridge owners, and Bouchard said that “if we’ve got a private sector investor that’s willing to build the bridge, let’s take our money, time and investment elsewhere.

Only House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who supported the House-passed legislation on May 26, favors DRIC and said the risk will be on the private sector. He believes he may have taken donations from the Ambassador Bridge in the past.

Chrysler’s Marchionne said the new span is critical to Chrysler’s just-in-time supply chain that includes 1,300 shipments and 2,000 cars and trucks crossing the Detroit-Windsor border every day.

“The need … is widely acknowledged. I want to make it clear that Chrysler strongly supports the DRIC” because it adds “necessary redundancy” to the current Ambassador Bridge as well as better access linking Canadian and Michigan highways.

DRIC proponents say the bridge is needed to create construction jobs and create or protect other jobs, to bolster trade and provide border capacity redundancy in case the other crossings went out of service.

The issue also was raised in the annual “Big 4” discussion among Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano and Macomb Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Gieleghem. All expressed support for DRIC.

Patterson said he favors the DRIC because Windsor is unlikely to accept a second Ambassador Bridge span in its downtown area, “and if it’s not going to do it downtown, it’s either DRIC or (another bridge) in Buffalo. … I hope we can settle it soon. I love Matty, but he’s got a monopoly. Who wouldn’t want to protect a multibillion dollar monopoly? Why would you want a competitor?”

Added Ficano: “The Moroun family has legitimate concerns, but you can’t go against the Canadian government.”

“We all favor DRIC,” Bing said. “It will create 6,000 permanent jobs and ancillary jobs. He (Moroun) doesn’t want that bridge, but we’ve got to think beyond the individual entrepreneur and do what’s best.”

Said Gieleghem: “People are saying Michigan can’t afford it, but it needs to be looked at as an investment and about turning this region into a transportation and logistics hub.”

Crain’s reporters Amy Lane and Tom Henderson contributed to this story.

Bill Shea: (313) 446-1626, bshea@crain.com

News From Mackinac

Big 4 at Mackinac support proposed new bridge

Mark Hornbeck / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — The Big Four leaders of Metro Detroit all said today they support the proposed Detroit River International Crossing, saying there’s no viable alternative to a public-private partnership building a second bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Macomb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Gieleghem said the DRIC is needed to increase cross-border commerce and security.

Patterson said he’s a friend of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun and didn’t fault him for trying to protect his monopoly. But he said Canadian officials have said they won’t accept the twin span he wants to build next to the Ambassador that would put traffic from another bridge in downtown Windsor.

So the only game in town is the DRIC, or it’s Buffalo,” he said at the Big Four panel discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference. The DRIC has been a primary focus of public and private discussions on the island the past three days.

Added Bing: “From Matty’s standpoint he doesn’t want that competition. But we have to look beyond that to do what’s best for this area as soon as we possibly can.”

Reacting to a proposal espoused earlier this week by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to make Detroit a citywide tax-free zone, Bing and Patterson said “the devil is in the details” but they didn’t rule it out.

Bing said he wants to make sure any benefits would go not only to new businesses lured to the city but also to those in Detroit. He noted it would take state and federal legislation. But he added: “I am open-minded and in favor of doing that.”

“It has a lot of sex appeal… but if Dave doesn’t have any revenue coming in how’s he funding his police department?” Patterson asked. “Will he ask his neighbors to help?”

In other developments, Ficano and Patterson announced an agreement has been reached on the Aerotroplis economic development project that Patterson will sign early next week. Patterson said he has read the details of the legislation and his concerns about renaissance zones and other provisions have been addressed.

“It’s all in there, we were going to sign it here but we couldn’t get it organized so we’ll sign it back home,” Patterson said

The Aerotropolis plan would develop property between Metro Airport and Willow Run Airport, giving companies access to airports, rail and highway. The idea is to develop an area for industries that would be efficient for moving goods.

Bing said he’s eager to take the reins of Detroit Public Schools and he wants to do it as quickly as possible so “I will be able to step up and take a leadership role as it relates to the schools.” He added emergency financial manager Robert Bobb’s contract runs out next March so it’s important to launch a national search for his replacement soon.

The leaders said they met today and plan to huddle again soon on a regional transit authority, a deal that has proved elusive for decades.

“I think we’re getting close,” Bing said.

Three of the leaders said they oppose making Michigan a right-to-work state, saying the issue would be too divisive at a time the state needs to focus on other priorities. Patterson said he’d be willing to try it in tax-free zones, adding the state’s unemployed citizens “would love to have the right to work.”

On the gubernatorial front, Gieleghem said he’s backing Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero for governor and Patterson said he’s supporting Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard. Bing and Ficano said they haven’t picked a candidate yet.

mhornbeck@detnews.com (313) 222-2470