John Baird to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry

John Baird will be the first foreign minister to sit down with America’s newest secretary of state on Friday when he meets with John Kerry.

By: Lee-Anne Goodman The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON—John Baird will be the first foreign minister to sit down with America’s newest secretary of state on Friday when he meets with John Kerry at the State Department to discuss an array of bilateral and international issues.

The two men will “discuss ways to deepen cooperation in the extensive Canada-U.S. relationship,” including efforts to streamline trade and travel at the border, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.

Kerry, who was officially sworn in on Wednesday, insisted that he meet first with Baird, she added.

“The secretary felt very strongly that our Canadian neighbour and ally should come first,” Nuland said.

In a statement, Baird said he was looking forward to working with Kerry “to find new ways to create jobs, growth and opportunity on both sides of our shared border.”

Baird’s visit to the capital comes five days after he and Kerry had a 15-minute phone call on Sunday.

During that conversation, Baird told reporters in Ottawa on Monday, Kerry expressed no concerns about allegations that Canadians were involved in last month’s terrorist attack on a gas plant in Algeria.

Since then, however, it has emerged that a man who held both Canadian and Lebanese citizenship was involved in a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria last July. Baird hasn’t been able to provide details about the man’s activities in Canada.

Nuland said TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline will almost certainly be a key topic of conversation between the two men on Friday.

“I have no doubt that subject will come up, as it always does with our Canadian counterparts,” she said.

Baird made the case for Keystone approval during his weekend phone conversation with Kerry. The State Department will make the ultimate decision on Keystone because it crosses an international border.

The $7 billion project would carry carbon-intensive bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and has become a flashpoint for U.S. environmentalists, who view it as a symbol of dirty oil.

Kerry has told Baird the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline will be completed soon. But Nuland said Thursday there’s been no change in State’s timeline on Keystone, reiterating that a decision likely won’t come for several weeks.

The new Detroit-Windsor bridge is another probable area of discussion. Both Keystone and the bridge are awaiting the green light from the Obama administration.

Nuland wouldn’t bite on questions about who might become America’s next ambassador to Canada. Several names are being bandied about by prognosticators in Canada-U.S. circles, including that of Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy.

New Canadian Minister of Transport Minister Strahl to Oversee DRIC Project

John Baird, formerly Canada’s Transport Minister, has been appointed to Government House leader. This trusted position, announced today by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, further enhances Mr. Baird’s status and reinforces the position of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) in Canada’s list of priorities. As Prime Minister Harper stated “The economy remains the number one priority of Canadians and of our Government”. The DRIC is the infrastructure project that will have the single greatest economic impact in Canada. The priority and support of DRIC has remained unchanged through three Prime Ministers and five Transportation Ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, and will remain a top priority for the Government of Canada.

The Honorable Chuck Strahl

Following Mr. Baird as Transportation Minister is the Honorable Chuck Strahl. Mr. Strahl was first elected to Parliament in 1993. He was re-elected in 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008. In February 2006, Mr. Strahl was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board. In August 2007, he was named Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians.

Prior to entering politics, Mr. Strahl was a partner in a successful road construction and logging contracting firm. Mr. Strahl and his wife, Deb, have four children and six grandchildren.

The supporters of the DRIC project congratulate Mr. Baird on his new appointment and thank him for his commitment to the DRIC. We look forward to working with his  successor to begin the building of this important crossing.

Canada Minister of Transport: Let’s get jobs created now

Canada Minister of Transport John Baird testified in front of the Michigan Senate Transportation Committee on June 22, 2010 in full support of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC).

Baird stated that the DRIC project is needed to boost the economies of both the U.S. and Canada by providing as many as 30,000 construction jobs, as well as increasing trade efficiency.

Two-way trade between the U.S. and Canada is nearly $2 billion per day and the Detroit-Windsor corridor handles 30 percent of trade, approximately $130 billion per year, between the U.S. and Canada.

Transport minister John Baird touts DRIC

Baird testifies at Michigan hearing

By Dave Battagello, The Windsor Star

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.

Canada Minister: DRIC Poses No Risk For Michigan

MIRS: June 22, 2010

Canada Minister of Transport Jon BAIRD told a Senate panel today that the $550 million that the government of Canada is putting up to cover Michigan’s portion of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) is not a loan and does not create an obligation for Michigan or its taxpayers in any way.

The money would be loaned to the DRIC bridge authority, which would then pay a private company to build, operate and maintain the bridge. The bridge authority would repay Canada over the next 30 to 50 years through its toll revenue, Baird said. Any financial risk of the bridge not being able to pay off the expenses associated with the $2.3 billion project would be borne by either the private partner, the bridge authority or Canada, depending how the final arrangement is struck. Not Michigan.

At no time would Canada give or loan Michigan one cent.

“Let me be perfectly clear, since Michigan will not be funding the project, Michigan taxpayers will bear no risks in this transaction,” Baird told the Senate Transportation Committee.

Baird, Canada’s equivalent of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHOOD, said he testified in front of a foreign government entity for the first time in his career because constructing DRIC is the country’s top infrastructure priority and he felt it necessary to come personally to Michigan’s lawmakers to explain the benefits.

He told reporters afterward the senators’ questions were “well-researched and non-partisan.” Baird also was asked if he was surprised that Michigan officials were not more receptive to a second span over the Detroit River when it wouldn’t cost them any money.

“All of the senators do the best job they can for Michigan,” Baird said. “They all want to keep the Michigan taxpayer protected. That’s their job. We welcome the chance to come. The committee asked for a senior representative of the government to come. By me coming and answering the questions forthrightly, it shows the priority we give the project.”

All five members of the Senate Transportation Committee were given an opportunity to quiz the Minister. Sen. Gerald VAN WOERKOM (R-Norton Shores) asked maybe the most pointed question when he asked Baird why Canada was so interested in spending public resources on a second span when the Ambassador Bridge Company is offering to build a new span at no cost to any public entity.

Baird said DRIC has been talked about in Canada for more than 20 years as a necessity from a trade and national security perspective. When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen HARPER appointed Baird to the position, Baird said he was mandated to make DRIC happen.

“At this time, we can make the financing available,” Baird said. “It demonstrates our unparalleled enthusiasm for this project. The time is right to make this happen. There have been far too many delays. Far too many lawsuits.”

Baird and Helena BORGES, the associate assistant deputy for the Ministry of Transportation, addressed head-on questions about the Ambassador Bridge and the steps the company needs to take to complete their second span over the Detroit River.

First off, they said the Ambassador Bridge was told two and a half years ago that the environmental information they supplied to the Canadian government was incomplete. They needed assessments on the environmental impact on the international plazas as opposed to just the actual bridge.

Borges said they have told Ambassador Bridge officials on numerous occasions that they cannot move forward with the environmental requests until that information is provided. The environmental damage of vehicles idling can be significant. They also went through the extra step of helping the Ambassador Bridge with a master plan for their customs station so they could not be accused later of “dragging their feet.”

The Canadian officials planned on spending the rest of the day talking individually with Michigan lawmakers, making the case that from a national security and commerce standpoint, DRIC makes sense. They also are making the case that a second bridge is necessary.

“I can appreciate that if you have the only bridge you’re going to be hesitant to allow a second one,” Baird said. “There are concerns about national security. If that bridge were to ever go down, the Michigan and Ontario economy would come to its knees in a matter of days if not hours. We’ve also got 6,800-8,000 trucks a day driving through 17 different traffic lights between the 401 and the bridge. A new span in a different area will alleviate that.”

What if the Senate doesn’t approve legislation currently sitting in the Senate Transportation Committee allowing the Department of Transportation (MDOT) to use public-partnerships (P3) to build DRIC?

“I’m not going to bet on failure,” said Baird, adding that if the Senate acts soon on the P3 bill, workers could be hired to begin work on DRIC by the fall.

Ambassador Bridge President Dan STAMPER spoke briefly after Baird and said the Minister “danced around the question” of a 1990 settlement between the Ambassador Bridge and Canada that allows them to proceed without much of the protocol that Baird said has the Ambassador Bridge project on ice for at least a year if not longer.

“We’re disappointed that the Minister would come here and ignore the questions that were asked and ignore the facts of the case,” said Stamper, adding that he would provide the committee with written responses to other “facts that we heard today that are not accurate.”

Canadian Minister of Transport testifies in Michigan Senate

“I think it’s becoming clear that we can protect the taxpayer.”
-Senator Jud Gilbert
Chair, Senate Transportation Committee

John Baird, Canadian Minister of Transport, tesitifies in front of the Michigan Senate Transportation Committee

Gongwer: June 22, 2010

As the Senate Transportation Committee wrapped up hearings Tuesday on the proposed Detroit River International Crossing, the committee chair, Sen. Jud Gilbert, said he is growing convinced the project can be done without risk to the state.

Mr. Gilbert (R-Algonac) said he remains undecided on the legislation to create a public-private partnership to oversee the financing to build the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. And there are still key items to resolve, such as questions about the traffic and revenue study, the language of the bill, security at the new crossing and constitutional questions, Mr. Gilbert said.

Still, the main question – whether the bridge could be built without financial risk to the state should the project fail to generate sufficient toll revenues to repay construction costs – is closer to being answered positively, Mr. Gilbert said.

“If that concern can be addressed, which I’m beginning to think it can be, I would stand up and explain the bill … and why I support it,” he said. “Increasingly, I think it’s becoming clear that we can protect the taxpayer.”

Mr. Gilbert cited, in part, Tuesday’s testimony from Transport Canada’s John Baird before the Transportation Committee including Mr. Baird’s adamant stand that Canada will not waiver on a $550 million commitment to cover what otherwise would be Michigan’s costs for the project. Mr. Gilbert said some senators are worried about whether political support in Canada would endure for the $550 million commitment.

“There is solid support for this on the Canadian side,” Mr. Baird replied, noting that both the province of Ontario, led by the Liberal Party, and the federal government, led by Conservative Party, back the project. “There’s overwhelming support for this.”

Mr. Gilbert quipped, “You’re asking politicians to trust politicians.”

That prompted Mr. Baird to respond, “We’re Canadians. We’re good people.”

Mr. Gilbert said he was further reassured by Mr. Baird’s pledge that Michigan would not have to cover any shortfalls in the so-called availability payments that would use tolls to repay the cost of financing the construction.

“That’s the issue that’s concerned me all along.”

Mr. Baird told reporters, including some Canadian news outlets, after the hearing that he took the rare step of testifying before a foreign government to demonstrate Canada’s support for DRIC.

“I think what it shows is our government’s commitment, (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper’s commitment to fight for this project and to fight for the jobs it’ll bring to Windsor-Essex, the jobs it will bring to the auto sector,” he said. “We could really put a shot in the arm of the local economy in the next few years.”

Mr. Baird said he understood the Senate asking questions about the project.

“They…want to see the Michigan taxpayer protected,” he said. “That’s their job.”

Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns the rival Ambassador Bridge, testified briefly after Mr. Baird and said there were several inaccuracies in Mr. Baird’s testimony. The two sides disagree on whether environmental approval is required, among other issues.

Activity on DRIC might slow now. Mr. Gilbert said he had no timetable for a vote as remaining answers are pursued. “I guess I’m not sure exactly how it’s all going to play out,” he said.

In another development, Senate Minority Floor Leader Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit) said he is undecided on the bill. Mr. Thomas said he is putting his primary focus on the so-called community benefits legislation (HB 6218) that ensures area residents get first crack at the jobs produced by DRIC.

That means 11 senators – nine Democrats and two Republicans – have said in interviews that they will vote for DRIC or are leaning toward doing so. Thirteen senators – three Democrats and 10 Republicans – have said they will vote no or are leaning toward voting no.

Mr. Thomas’ comments bring the number of those saying they are undecided to 11 – three Democrats and eight Republicans. Another three, one Democrat and two Republicans, have refused to comment on how they will vote.