Canada’s new consul general is determined to build a new Detroit River bridge

I had a conversation yesterday with Douglas George, the Canadian government’s new consul general in Detroit.

For Canada, this area is an economic region important enough to merit a mini-embassy. Ottawa has a vast suite of offices in the Renaissance Center, and a large staff, some busy with immigration matters, and the rest primarily with economic and trade questions.

One indication of how important Canada sees Detroit is that Consul George was most recently their ambassador to Kuwait, and before that was a major trade negotiator who at various times headed both their government’s tariff and intellectual property divisions.

Here, he is responsible for trade and other issues involving a five-state area economically vital to Canada.

Detroit is, without any doubt, the most important border crossing between our two nations, and businesses on both sides of the border, especially Canada, have been consumed by the need for a second bridge capable of handling major freight.

Every week, well over a billion dollars in heavy automotive and other manufacturing components pass over the 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge. There is no other economically and geographically feasible way of moving this stuff.

Nor is the current bridge in a sensible location, especially for Canada. Trucks coming from Detroit have to endure 16 red lights before connecting with a major highway.

For years, any new crossing was stymied by Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge.

But now both governments have agreed to build one, now known as the New International Trade Crossing. They aren’t quite home free yet. Washington has yet to agree to fund the customs plaza needed for what will be a major outpost between two nations.

And the consul told me Michigan has not yet finished buying and assembling all the parcels of land needed for the bridge’s footprint on the American side. Canada needs this bridge so much that it has agreed to foot all the upfront costs.

Michigan, in turn, will pay them back years from now out of the state’s share of the tolls. But legally, our state has to buy the land, which is in Delray, a rundown neighborhood a couple of miles south of the current bridge.

However, there are hangups. Much of the land is owned by Detroit, and some council members are insisting on a defined package of community benefits.

Clearly, bridges aren’t built in a day. Douglas George is philosophical about this, and says he thinks the new bridge could still be open for business by the target date of 2020.

His father was an attorney in Sarnia, right across the river from Port Huron, and spent something like a quarter-century on a commission striving to get a new bridge built there. If you are a diplomat, it helps to take the long view.

For George, this post is almost a homecoming. Growing up, he came to Detroit every chance he got to see concerts.

The city’s decline saddened him, but he told me yesterday he was happily amazed by how fast things seemed to be turning around.

He hopes that before long, a new generation of Canadian kids will be streaming in to the revitalized city, some of them over a new bridge.

Originally Posted by: Michigan Radio

The Moroun misinformation campaign continues

In Matt Moroun’s latest editorial, he claims that “…the Ambassador Bridge was built and has been maintained without ever taking taxpayer assistance.”

FACT: $230 million taxpayer dollars were used on the Gateway Project that serves the congested Ambassador Bridge and the Federal Government paid to build and continues to pay to maintain the customs plaza at the bridge.

Matt Moroun Editorial:

In the latest news about the New International Trade Crossing government bridge proposal, taxpayers have learned that the proposal requires $250 million for an inspection plaza, as well as the Michigan Transportation Department’s resources for condemning land.

Unfortunately, the Detroit News editorial “Bridge fight has gone on too long” has, not so subtly, chosen to blame these government bridge shortcomings on the private sector and the Ambassador Bridge.

Our company should not be blamed for these fatal flaws. Unlike the government bridge, the Ambassador Bridge was built and has been maintained without ever taking taxpayer assistance. Our position that the government bridge is wrong-minded has not changed. It can’t even pay for itself.

Everyone has heard Gov. Rick Snyder say that his bridge does not need taxpayer money or resources. Now that it does, that is not our fault.

Also, it is not the fault of the Legislature, which has consistently restricted expenditures of money and resources for the government bridge for many years. In fact, until now, Snyder has said that he didn’t even need the Legislature in order to build the government bridge. However, this hasn’t stopped some in the media from insinuating that if a legislator does not want to spend money and resources on the NITC that it must be because of campaign contributions rather than fiscal responsibility — or even reliance on the governor’s word.

The “flip-flop” on taxpayer dollars and risk should be the story.

Matt Moroun, vice chairman,

Ambassador Bridge

Originally posted in the  Detroit News

 

Moroun campaign donations raise eyebrows in Detroit bridge vote

By Gary Heinlein

Lansing— The family whose patriarch owns the Ambassador Bridge has spent more than $1 million since 2009 in its legislative fight against a new span between Detroit and Canada.

That fight continues: Just last week, the GOP-led Senate approved a ban against state purchases of land for the bridge.

The Detroit News, using figures compiled by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a political watchdog group, found the family of Manuel “Matty” Moroun made political donations totaling more than $105,000 in the last five years to 18 of the 26 GOP senators who voted in favor of the New International Trade Crossing spending prohibition.

All told, Moroun and his family have spent tens of millions of dollars fighting the bridge, sought by Gov. Rick Snyder and the U.S. and Canadian governments, through a legislative blockadeand an unsuccessful 2012 statewide ballot measure. The $1 million in legislative giving includes contributions to House members and a wide variety of political committees — with the lion’s share going to Republicans and committees that support them.

The donations appear to have met legal limits and requirements.

“They are putting the interests of a billionaire campaign donor ahead of Michigan’s economy and the thousands of jobs that the bridge would bring,” said Senate Democratic spokesman Robert McCann. “I’m not sure I can think of a sadder commentary on the state of our Legislature under Republican control.”

Sen. Jack Brandenburg makes no apologies for his vote. The first-term Harrison Township senator and his Liberty Political Action Committee have received at least $10,000 from the Morouns.

“I will more than gladly let them donate to my re-election,” Brandenburg said. “I was on their side the first time I heard of (the bridge plan). I don’t think we need to spend state money on this bridge.”

Republican Snyder argues building the second span south of the Ambassador Bridge will further bolster commerce on America’s busiest international trade corridor and create more jobs for Michigan.

In response, the Ambassador Bridge owner has sought permission to build his own second span next to the existing bridge — a proposal that Canadian officials oppose.

Unable to win legislative approval, Snyder is pushing forward through an inter-local agreement he signed with the U.S. and Canadian governments. Land purchases for a customs plaza in Detroit are supposed to start this summer.

Irked GOP leaders inserted the land purchase ban into the $3.8 billion transportation budget. Under the provision the Republican majority approved with one Democratic vote, even land-buying reimbursed by Canada is prohibited.

The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel are operating below capacity and proponents’ projections for steadily growing cross-border traffic seem unrealistic, said Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, who adds he has questioned the second bridge since it was first proposed under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

The head of the Senate’s transportation appropriations subcommittee said he has received far more campaign money from business leaders who back the new bridge than the Morouns’ combined $8,000 in campaign contributions to him and his leadership fund.

“I really rail at the idea that Matty Moroun’s contribution makes a difference,” added Pappageorge, who said he agreed to the provision written by Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw.

Kahn, long an opponent of the public bridge, has received $1,000 in direct campaign money from the Morouns, but two political funds connected to him have gotten $21,500 through the years.

But Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, said the latest effort to stifle the second bridge “is one last gasp on the part of those who are heavily influenced by the Morouns.”

“You can draw a pretty clear line between who got money and who has an objection (to the bridge),” Anderson said, noting $120 billion a year in international commerce passes across the Detroit River — most of it over Moroun’s bridge.

The transportation budget bill ultimately passed 27-11 with Democratic Sen. Tupac Hunter of Detroit joining the Senate’s GOP members in favor of it. The remaining 11 Democrats voted against it — primarily, Anderson said, because of the bridge spending ban.

How much of a problem the land-buying ban creates for Snyder is uncertain. The House’s transportation budget, also approved last week, broadly bars state spending on the bridge but doesn’t specifically target land-buying.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said legal advisers are reviewing the budget situation, but the governor hopes lawmakers strike it from the final bill.

Political observer Jeff Williams said Senate Republican opposition appears to stem more from political philosophy than Moroun money.

“I don’t by any means think (Matty Moroun) is buying votes,” said Williams, CEO of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. “But he is encouraging beliefs the Senate majority already has.

“This is an issue that has no middle ground,” he added. “… They are saying repeatedly to two governors (Jennifer Granholm and Snyder): ‘We do not believe this (new) bridge is needed but if it is, it should be private.’”

Heaviest giving to Senate Republicans was in 2011 — when legislation to allow the bridge was defeated in a Senate committee headed by Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake — and in 2012.

A leadership committee headed by Kowall has received at least $15,000 from the Morouns. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network also reported Kowall and his wife, Rep. Eileen Kowall, received $6,144 and $3,144, respectively, in non-monetary contributions in 2010 from the North Oakland Political Action Committee, another Moroun donation recipient.

“I don’t know the Moroun family all that well, and I’m not opposed to the bridge,” Kowall said. “What I’m opposed to is any state funds going toward it.”

Moroun spent at least $45 million on a failed 2012 ballot proposal that would have prohibited the bridge without statewide voter approval.

In late September that year, he gave $100,000 to the state Republican Party.

Spokesman Mickey Blashfield, government affairs director for Moroun’s Central Transport International Inc., said the Morouns are exercising their rights as citizens.

“They’re no different than a hockey stadium developer or anyone else,” Blashfield said. “We’re participating in the political process the way we learned in civics class.”

The Morouns’ giving, he added, “is absolutely transparent because you can look it up. We don’t have a shadowy 501(c)(4) that has paid for people in Detroit or anything like that.”

The reference is a shot at Snyder’s anonymous-donor Nerd Fund, since replaced by a fund whose contributors are more transparent. The Nerd Fund had covered some living expenses for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

Michigan Campaign Finance Network Director Rich Robinson, who systematically tracks candidate and issue spending, described Moroun’s giving as a way of reinforcing his support.

“I’ve heard an explanation: ‘You can’t give me money to do something I wouldn’t otherwise do,’ and (from the donor’s point of view): ‘You know what I like, and I’m not going to give you any more unless you support me.’ ”

Originally posted in the Detroit News

Federal officials work to fund customs plaza for new Detroit River bridge

By Eric D. Lawrence

Federal officials are working on securing funds for a customs plaza to support the planned New International Trade Crossing, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said today.

“One of my responsibilities as secretary of Homeland Security is … to promote lawful trade and travel,” Johnson said. “We are actively looking for ways to fund a potential customs plaza along with the construction of the bridge. Once the bridge is built obviously you need a customs plaza to support it.”

Johnson, who was surrounded by local, state, federal and Canadian officials and other stakeholders, spoke during a news conference following a roundtable discussion about the U.S. northern border. The discussion follows the introduction of legislation by U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., that seeks to prioritize funding for federal customs plazas at trade crossings.

When asked if plaza funding could happen happen this year, Johnson said that “it’s something we’re actively working on.”

The bridge, which is being paid for by Canada, is widely supported by business and government interests in Southeast Michigan and across the border but has faced opposition by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge.

Johnson, who is touring sites in Detroit and Port Huron today, told a crowd at the Detroit Regional Chamber office that Canadian authorities have done their part to make the new crossing a reality.

“It is up to us in the federal government to do our part as well,” Johnson said.

“The Northern Border and trade crossings in the state of Michigan have the potential to make our region a transportation and logistics hub in the Midwest if we make the necessary infrastructure investments now,” Peters said. “We should be allocating resources where the economic utilization will be greatest, where the investment will create jobs, increase exports and grow our middle class. Secretary Johnson visiting Michigan is an important step.”

The issue of the customs plaza has been a sore spot for those in the Port Huron area, which has been in line for customs plaza funding for years.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow acknowledged that in the case of Port Huron, “frankly, they had the rug pulled out from under them.”

But she reiterated the importance of the crossing in Detroit.

“This (new) bridge is critical … for security, for jobs, for economic development,” Stabenow said. “We have a commitment from our Canadian partners … We have to do our part on our side of the bridge to make sure that when it’s time to do the plaza that the funding is there.”

Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press

Did state’s Detroit EM team use its clout to stymie Moroun bridge?

By Todd Spangler

WASHINGTON — An Ambassador Bridge official said Thursday that a member of Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s team told him last fall that the state had made it clear it did not want the city selling rights to the bridge company that could allow it to build a twin span to replace the 85-year-old bridge.

If true, the declaration made by Detroit International Bridge Co. President Dan Stamper in federal court in Washington could raise questions about whether anyone in state government used the city’s financial crisis — and the state’s intervention — as a pretext to keep a second span from being built.

State officials did not immediately return a request for comment. Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Orr last year as emergency manager, has been a wholehearted supporter of a rival span to be built over the Detroit River to Windsor that Ambassador Bridge officials are trying to block.

Stamper’s declaration was submitted to U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who concluded a hearing requested by bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun to stop the Coast Guard from issuing a permit to let the rival New International Trade Crossing, or NITC, move forward.

She did not rule on the request for an injunction but is expected to do so in the days or weeks to come. On Wednesday, she had chided Moroun’s son, Matthew Moroun, the company’s vice chairman, for not spending enough to simply buy the rights needed for a twin span from the City of Detroit.

The written declaration submitted Thursday wasn’t immediately available, but the Ambassador Bridge’s lawyer, Hamish Hume, described it to Collyer as Stamper’s version of an Oct. 22 conversation he had with Gary Brown, a former City Council member and chief operating officer for Detroit under Orr.

Stamper said Brown told him that politics aside, an easement over Riverside Park next to the Detroit River could be sold to the bridge company but that “Lansing” — presumably meaning some person, branch or agency in state government — “had instructed the city not to sell the easement,” Hume said.

The city’s refusal to sell the Moroun family an easement to “air rights” over Riverside Park has been a key reason the Coast Guard hasn’t issued a permit for a second span rising over the park that Ambassador Bridge officials say they want to build to replace their aging one.

Bridge company lawyers argue state and federal agencies are not playing fair with their proposal, in favor of the rival NITC, which is to be paid for by Canada. As the Free Press reported, Matthew Moroun said Wednesday if the NITC gets its permit before his company does, it is “the end of the race.”

Hume said Stamper provided the declaration in response to Collyer’s questions to Matthew Moroun on Wednesday, and said lawyers hadn’t brought it up before because they didn’t want the court “to conclude we won’t get the easement” despite opposition in the city to sell it to the bridge company.

“We will get the easement. But we have to work through the politics of Detroit,” Hume said. He added that, in another declaration, Matthew Moroun told Collyer he had sent an offer of $5 million for the air rights to the city Thursday.

Asked about Stamper’s declaration, Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling, said he had “no information about (the) veracity of Mr. Stamper’s comments” and said only that Orr and his staff “have been focused on restructuring the city.”

Brian Collins, of the U.S. Justice Department, argued that the bridge company’s failure to get a permit has no relation to whether the NITC gets one and that, in any case, it would be premature to issue an injunction since no NITC permit has been issued. He added, however, that the Coast Guard’s requirement that private bridge owners have easements in hand before providing a permit is appropriate.

But the question of whether someone at the state could have contacted Orr’s office or the city and advised against selling the easement could be an important one, said Collyer, especially in a case like this one, where the state is party to a deal to build a rival bridge with Canada picking up the tab.

“Is that acting as a sovereign (state government),” she asked, “or is that acting as a competitor?”

Originally posted in the Detroit Free Press

U.S.-Canada Bridge Funding at Risk

By Alistair MacDonald and Matthew Dolan

In a potential blow to a project that would speed traffic over one of the world’s busiest trade routes, the Obama administration is holding back financial support for a customs plaza that is key to the future of a proposed international bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Canada has already pledged to provide or guarantee private funding for most of the project’s expected $3.65 billion cost, including $550 million for a link between the bridge and U.S. Interstate 75. The Obama administration approved construction of the bridge last April, and Ottawa expected Washington to contribute $250 million to build the plaza, without which the bridge wouldn’t be viable.

The bridge has support of Michigan’s Republican governor and its two Democratic senators, among others in the state’s congressional delegation. But U.S. officials say that there are limited infrastructure dollars and competing projects and that private money can step in on this bridge.

“We are increasingly concerned that the administration, by way of inaction, will stand in the way of this national infrastructure project,” said Sandy Baruah, president and chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Canada continues to work under the assumption that the U.S. will fund the customs plaza and has heard nothing from the White House to suggest otherwise, said Roy Norton, a Canadian diplomat who until earlier this month was consul general in Detroit.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration have told a group of seven Michigan congressional members and the Canadian government that their agencies don’t have resources available to build the plaza, according to a February letter by those members.

More recently, several administration officials have told Canadian counterparts that Canadian—or private—money should replace the $250 million that Washington was set to spend on the customs plaza, according to people familiar with the matter. The Obama administration argues that those private funds can be recouped through toll revenue, according to a White House budget official. Canada, though, is struggling to accept that U.S. funding may not come, said another person.

Mr. Norton said asking private investors for more money could put them off investing, given that Canada has already talked to them about the $1 billion the current plan calls for them to invest. Canada is talking to the U.S. about ways to spread its $250 million over a number of years, he said.

“Clearly the United States government is responsible for paying for its own Port of Entry and customs plaza,” said a spokeswoman for Lisa Raitt, Canada’s Minister of Transport.

The potential knockback comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and its biggest trading partner, Canada, are already being tested by the yearslong approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

More than $130 billion of trade flowed through Detroit into Canada in 2012, the second largest cross-border flow after Laredo, Texas, and Mexico. A new crossing at the Windsor-Detroit border has long been a top priority for Canadian policy makers despite a legal challenge from the owner of the competing Ambassador Bridge.

Canadian exporters complain the current congested span costs the economy billions of dollars in delivery delays and increased compliance burdens.

Lack of U.S. funding for customs plazas has stymied similar projects along its borders. The president’s current budget includes $420 million that could be spent on customs plazas, but the General Services Administration listed only border stations in California and New York, not the proposed bridge in Michigan. A GSA spokesman said Wednesday the agency is working on the issue.

A Transportation Department spokeswoman said money is still being spent on new infrastructure and the department continues to “work with other agencies to move the project forward.”

Michigan officials have ramped up pressure on the White House in recent months.

“We risk further hampering international trade if border capacity is not increased to meet projected growth,” the congressional members wrote in the February letter. Rep. Gary Peters, a Democrat who represents parts of Detroit and its suburbs, introduced a bill that would fund the plaza.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at alistair.macdonald@wsj.com and Matthew Dolan at matthew.dolan@wsj.com

Originally posted in the Wall Street Journal

Matty Moroun Wants Government To Protect Him From The Government

Deadline Detroit

By Jeff Wattrick

Put-upon small businessman Matty Moroun is just trying to eek out a living running his humble busiest North American commercial border crossing, but the government is out to ruin him by suggesting that there should be a another road for Detroit-Windsor border traffic.

Moroun claims he has the exclusive right to international bridges in this area and, gosh darnit, the government should protect his monopoly at all costs.

Detroit Free Press: Moroun’s companies had already asked for an order blocking construction of the rival New International Trade Crossing, which is to be built a short distance down the Detroit River. The NITC, financed by the Canadian government and with approval from the U.S. State Department in hand, could grab as much as 75% of the existing bridge traffic, court filings said.

[Moroun lawyer Hamish P.M.] Hume said the defendants — who have included Secretary of State John Kerry, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others — “seek to usurp” Moroun’s existing decades-old franchise to handle cross-border traffic “by building a government-owned bridge that will occupy virtually the same location.”

The temerity of national governments to believe they get to do decide what public infrastructure goes on their international borders. It’s like what happened to our freedom to own government-subsidized monopoly businesses that control the flow of trade? 

Originally posted in Deadline Detroit