Vote on proposal to allow Michigan-Canada bridge appears unlikely for Wednesday in Senate

Associated Press

by Tim Martin

LANSING, Mich. — The fate of legislation that would allow Michigan to get involved with a partnership to build a new bridge linking Detroit and Canada remained uncertain Tuesday after another day of testimony on the proposal.

The Republican-led Senate Economic Development Committee had expected a possible vote on the hotly contested proposal Wednesday. But that appeared unlikely after Tuesday’s hearing, said Sen. Mike Kowall, a Republican from Oakland County’s White Lake Township and chairman of the committee.

Kowall acknowledged there may be not enough votes on the committee to approve the measure and send it to the Senate floor at this point.

Bridge supporters could let the committee continue work on the proposal, or bypass the committee and discharge the bill directly to the floor for a vote of the full, 38-member Senate. If that fails, it’s possible Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — a supporter of the bridge project — could try to bypass the Legislature and authorize the state to get involved with the project on his own.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said the governor’s intent and preference is to work with the Legislature to authorize the project, called the New International Trade Crossing.

“He’s continuing to make the case the NITC is the right thing for Michigan,” Wurfel said.

Many businesses, including Michigan’s auto companies, support building a new Detroit-Windsor bridge to aid passenger and commercial traffic. The plan would involve a public authority to oversee the project, which would be backed by private investors. Michigan would rely on $550 million from Canada for related improvements, a loan that could be repaid through bridge tolls.

The new bridge would be built near the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit and Windsor. The private owners of the Ambassador Bridge oppose the new bridge and want to expand their own operation.

Ambassador Bridge owners say a publicly supported bridge would unfairly compete with their own and could leave Michigan taxpayers liable if the project doesn’t pan out.

Supporters of the new bridge say the legislation is crafted to make sure Michigan taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for the project.

Could Senate NITC Vote Happen In October?

MIRS News

The chair of the Senate committee considering the proposed second bridge between Detroit and Windsor is not discounting the possibility of a vote by the end of October on the project.

But Sen. Mike KOWALL (R-White Lake), chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, also revealed that “I’m still in the convincing mode” and he’s not sure his panel is ready to vote just, yet.

Kowall was asked if the issue was moving forward, standing still or going backwards.

“All of the above,” he chuckled, noting that he had to go backwards to bring some of the committee members up to speed on the complex and controversial question.

He said he believes the bus trip to visit the bridge site and the side trip to Windsor this summer was a critical piece of the learning process.

Kowall said he wanted to “let them experience what the trucks go through” when using the Ambassador Bridge in what turned out to be almost a 13-hour day. He laughed that the field trip was described as the “March to Bataan on a bus,” referring to a death march during World War II.

Next week, the automobile manufacturers will take center stage to outline their complaints about delays on the current span as they struggle to meet the requirements of the on time deliveries to keep car factories operating. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all back the new bridge.

Kowall is running for Congress in the 11th District. When asked if the bridge would have any impact on his bid, he answered, “I don’t think so.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Brian CALLEY, Gov. Rick SNYDER‘s point person on the bridge, said the “awareness is growing” that the bridge is essential to Michigan’s economic comeback. He said he’s buying into Senate Majority Leader Randy RICHARDVILLE‘s (R-Monroe) assertion that there could be that full Senate vote by the end of next month.

Richardville also said that if the vote were held, he would have 20 votes in the Senate.

“I tend to believe him,” Calley said.

MIRS has learned that one senator has privately advised the GOP leader to vote on it now because the longer you wait, the tougher the vote might be. However, a well-placed source tells MIRS that there’s not much interest from House Republicans to take up the legislation even if it does clear the Senate.

Calley says he still has work to do, however, with various Tea Party factions that oppose the governor’s idea. As MIRS reported on Monday, the Willow Run Tea Party this week is slated to start airing an anti-China ad against the bridge on cable TV.

“I don’t blame them” for not understanding that this new proposal is not the old one, Calley said. He reiterated that misinformation has become part of this protracted debate.

Snyder puts muscle into public bridge

Governor uses office to twist lawmaker arms, combat opposition campaign by Ambassador owners

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder is using more than his bully pulpit as he pushes to get the Legislature to approve a new public bridge across the Detroit River.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun has paid nearly $5 million in Michigan alone for TV ads opposing the bridge, which have garnered lots of attention.

But if billionaire Moroun is a Goliath in the bridge battle, Snyder and the powers he wields are no David.

“It’s hard for an individual to fight against the government,” said state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, at a recent legislative hearing.

Snyder has staked considerable political capital on the bridge project by endorsing it in January and bucking the trend in his Republican party. And last week at a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids the governor said the bridge “ultimately is about jobs and international trade” and he’s focused on presenting the facts and countering misinformation.

His decision early this year to move the bridge project out of the Michigan Department of Transportation and into the governor’s office offered a signal of the project’s importance.

Just as Snyder discarded the Detroit River International Crossing moniker and helped rechristen the project the New International Trade Crossing, his shift in who spearheads it helped mollify GOP lawmakers unhappy with MDOT’s handling of the project and concerned about the department spending more public money unless and until lawmakers give the green light.

Moroun’s son Matthew, vice chairman of the company that owns the Ambassador, won’t say how much his family has spent fighting the public bridge. But he said it’s less than $10 million.

The state Transportation Department has spent $42 million on the bridge project from 2002 through early 2011, including $6.1 million in-house and $35.9 million on outside costs such as consultants, according to a report the department sent the Legislature at the end of March.

“We’re a profitable business, but we don’t have the state’s Treasury,” Moroun told The News.

Still, the state money was largely spent on engineering issues, not on a public relations campaign such as the one the Morouns are waging.

Calley takes the lead

To combat that, Snyder called on his energetic lieutenant governor, Brian Calley — who pushed through controversial budget changes that included a tax on public pensions.

Calley, like Snyder, has been meeting with GOP senators and House members individually and in small groups. He’s teamed up with supportive lawmakers to hold town hall meetings about the bridge in Macomb, Jackson and Kent counties.

Calley recently held his first “telephone town hall meeting” about the bridge with 22,000 participants in Oakland County. More events are planned, he said.

Calley said he talks about the bridge wherever he goes: “The idea is to reach as many people as we can with what the truth is.”

Snyder has used his communications office to trumpet support for the bridge, issuing news releases detailing support from various business groups and former governors.

Calley acknowledged lobbyists for businesses that want a new public bridge also are putting pressure on lawmakers.

“The business community support that we have had on this project has been so enthusiastic and very ambitious in going out there and handling their own communication efforts,” he said.

Support a murky issue

The Morouns have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to state lawmakers over the past two to three years. Matthew Moroun said the family his always made significant political donations, but he conceded the amounts the Morouns spend on political giving and lobbying have increased as a result of the bridge battle.

Snyder refused to accept campaign money from political action committees as a way of showing he is not beholden to special interests.

But he recently set up his own PAC, called “One Tough Nerd.” His spokeswoman, Sara Wurfel, said the bridge was not the reason Snyder set up the PAC, which can make donations to lawmakers, but the bridge issue will involve tough votes of the type Snyder wants to support.

Moroun, who uses the Lansing lobbying firm Karoub Associates as well as in-house lobbyist Mickey Blashfield, complained the media has focused on how much his family is spending but said the bridge proponents have lacked financial transparency. Blashfield is not registered as a lobbyist and Monday said he does not believe he is required to do so.

Tom Shields of Marketing Resource Group, the main spokesman for the New International Trade Crossing, would not say Monday who is paying for the work he does.

He said several businesses that rely on international trade put money into a nonprofit organization that is paying for his work. He knows the identities of some of the companies but not all of them, he added. The group has spent “zero” on advertising, aside from a website, a few T-shirts and some lapel buttons, he said.

The main pro-bridge lobbyist is Public Affairs Associates of Lansing, but as with Karoub, it isn’t possible to tell from state lobbying reports how much the firm has spent lobbying on the bridge issue.

Snyder may hold trump

Snyder, who initially wanted the Legislature to vote on a public authority to oversee the bridge project by the end of June, now wants lawmakers to act by the end of October.

The Senate Economic Development Committee that is handling the bridge bills is not expected to vote on them before Oct. 26.

If the committee moves the bills to the floor of the Legislature, that’s when the real horse-trading for votes might begin.

Lawmakers said there’s been talk of combining the bridge authority bill with a bill that would provide for bridge and road repairs in lawmakers’ districts, with the theory being such a bill would make it tougher for any lawmaker to vote no.

Calley said he’s not aware of such a bill, but the linkage is a natural one because the $550 million fronted by Canada to pay Michigan’s share of the bridge project is expected to leverage $2.2 billion in federal money that can be spent on roads and bridges statewide.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, who chairs the Senate committee, said Calley “raised some eyebrows” when he said in August the government has other ways of building an international bridge than going through the Legislature.

Having the federal government take over the project or Snyder issuing an executive order are seen as the two most likely alternatives.

Calley said he was answering a reporter’s question when he made the remark about alternatives to building the bridge and denied he was sending a tactical message to lawmakers that they shouldn’t try to play their hands too strongly. He said the preferred option is approving the bridge through the Legislature.

MIRS QUOTE OF THE DAY

“The only thing accurate in that ad was the fine print at the bottom that reads, ‘Paid for by the Detroit International Bridge Company.'”

– Brad WILLIAMS, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, speaking about a television ad airing in Michigan that’s critical of the proposed second span across the Detroit River.

MIRS News

Senators Want NITC Testifiers Under Oath

The chair of the Senate panel charged with flushing out the proposed new international bridge debate said today he is looking into the process of putting those testifying in front of his committee under oath.

Sen. Goeff HANSEN (R-Hart) today asked Sen. Mike KOWALL (R-White Lake), chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, about requiring people to raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth before taking the stand. This comes as the panel eyes an Oct. 26 vote on the bills that would clear the way for the bridge — SB 0410 and SB 0411.

“This is vital information that we’re getting,” Hansen said. “This is much too big to be going on hearsay or things that aren’t exactly right. We have to make sure what we have is the truth.”

Kowall said he would speak with legal counsel on Thursday to talk over the situation.

Under Senate Rule 2.102, any senator has the authority to administer oaths to any person who comes before a committee of which he or she is a member. Any committee, by resolution, is authorized to administer oaths and subpoena witnesses.

Those refusing to be sworn or testify or anyone who deliberately interferes with a Senate hearing can be held in contempt and be penalized by up to a 5-year, $1,000 misdemeanor, according to state law.

The subject came up during today’s Economic Development Committee as Detroit Regional Chamber Vice President Brad WILLIAMS went about debunking the televised ads being run by the Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC) against the proposed second span across the Detroit River, known now as the New International Trade Crossing (NITC).

At one point in the hearing, Williams said he would never call anyone a liar and then was interrupted by Kowall before he could continue.

“Please stick to the facts,” Kowall said. “I will extend the same courtesy to you when the other side testifies, as well.”

Williams went line by line with the claims made in the ads, about how traffic counts don’t justify the need for a second crossing over the Detroit River and how every Michigan family will be stuck with $194 in new debt, among other claims.

The first television advertisement, he said, were numbers the DIBC twisted and mutilated to fit their purposes. The second ad, he said, was flat-out false and untrue.

“The only thing accurate in that ad was the fine print at the bottom that reads, ‘Paid for by the Detroit International Bridge Company,'” Williams said.

After the hearing, Kowall worked out with the rest of his committee the subjects that would be dealt with in the final five hearings he’s planning on holding on the NITC subject. At the next hearing, he’s inviting Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to testify about the need for a second crossing.

At the second hearing, Kowall wants a discussion about the “community benefits” angle — what can residents of the Delray neighborhood expect for signing off on a new international crossing running through the heart of its community?

A deeper discussion about traffic projections will be reserved for a third hearing. The Gateway project is the subject of the fourth hearing. The fifth hearing is being reserved for legal issues.

Each committee meeting will be divided into one hour for those supporting the NITC and an hour for those opposing the bridge. If one side does not wish to offer witnesses in support of its position, the other side will be allowed to testify for the full meeting, Kowall’s office reported this evening.

Senate panel seeks auto input on new bridge

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Senate committee considering legislation to create a public authority to oversee a new Detroit River bridge will likely continue its deliberations until Oct. 26, its chairman said Wednesday.

Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, said his committee has heard the “30,000-foot viewpoint” on the proposed public bridge over the last several meetings and he now wants to tackle specific issues in detail.

Next Wednesday, Kowall said he wants to hear from automakers, who support a new public span.

Subsequent meetings will tackle community benefits for the west side Detroit neighborhood that would host the bridge; financial impacts and costs; traffic projections; and legal issues, Kowall said. A vote to send the bridge bills to the Senate floor would happen at a subsequent meeting.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he wants the Legislature to vote on the bridge authority before the end of October.

On Wednesday, the seven-member committee heard from Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, one of the main bridge backers.

Williams, testifying on behalf of a coalition he said represents more than 20,000 businesses, said they need “a safe, reliable and efficient way to get their product to market.”

Businesses need a freeway-to-freeway connection between Ontario and Michigan, he said. That’s what’s proposed by the New International Trade Crossing two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The owners of the Ambassador, the Moroun family, oppose the public span because they plan to build a second bridge.

A ‘no’ from Legislature won’t spell end for new bridge

BY JOHN GALLAGHER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Of all the words spilled in the debate over a new bridge to Canada, perhaps none have so stirred intrigue as those Lt. Gov. Brian Calley spoke in early August.

Calley, the point man for Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to build a new publicly owned bridge between Detroit and Windsor, said then that there are ways to authorize the construction of a new bridge even if the Legislature balks at approving Snyder’s plan.

“This bridge will happen. There’s a lot of ways the bridge can happen,” Calley told the Gongwer News Service. “My favorite way is the way we proposed the first time,” he said, referring to the legislative process, where Snyder’s plan for the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project faces considerable skepticism in the state Senate.

Calley didn’t discuss what the backup options may be. But bridge watchers suggest two possible scenarios.

In one, Snyder would issue an executive order to a state agency, such as the Michigan Department of Transportation, to build the bridge. In the other, the federal government would take over the project, ending Michigan’s involvement.

Either would be likely to spark huge controversy — even more than currently embroils the much-debated NITC project.

Other ideas on how to build bridge surface

So how many ways are there to build a bridge?

For several contentious months now, the only way forward for Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project passed through the Michigan Legislature, where the plan faces skepticism.

Then, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, leading the fight for the NITC, suggested in August that other ways to the same end might be possible.

“There’s a half-a-dozen different ways,” he said then. “I’m not going to get into describing all the different ways that it could happen because I’m still very committed to the way that we proposed, which I think is the best way, but it certainly is not the only way.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on his remarks to Gongwer News Service, but plenty of others have jumped in with suggestions.

Snyder himself has declined to get drawn into that discussion.

“The governor is very, very focused on doing this through the legislative process and working in partnership with the Legislature to make NITC a reality, and has every intent of doing it that way,” Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said this month.

Even so, observers have suggested two possible scenarios should the Legislature reject Snyder’s proposal to set up a new public authority to join with Canada to build the bridge.

In one scenario, Snyder would issue an executive order, directing either the Michigan Department of Transportation or, possibly, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to serve as the fiduciary for U.S. and Canadian funds to build the bridge.

MDOT already has broad experience shepherding big infrastructure projects to completion, including construction of a second Blue Water Bridge span in the 1990s, and dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars in highways funds from the federal government to pay for such projects. It would have the expertise to perform essentially the same function as a public authority created under Snyder’s NITC plan.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, chairman of the Senate’s Economic Development Committee, which is holding hearings on the NITC proposal, said that idea has riled some senators.

“It did raise some eyebrows,” Kowall said of Calley’s remarks. “I was asked by a few of the committee members, ‘Are we just having an exercise in futility here?’ ”

But Kowall agreed that under some circumstances, Snyder may be able to act without legislative approval.

“I do believe the governor could do that by executive order,” Kowall said this month. “I’d have to do a little bit more research. … I think it’d be a little bit risky to go the executive order route. … I don’t think it’s as easy as the governor just making a decision.”

The other possible avenue is to let the U.S. government take over control of the project from Michigan. Federal transportation authorities have declined to speculate on that scenario. But it has been a matter of speculation among watchers of the bridge debate.

Alan Ackerman, a Bloomfield Hills-based attorney specializing in land-use cases, said having the feds take over control would create a terrible outcome for Michigan.

“Then none of our local companies will be involved in the bidding process,” Ackerman, a supporter of the NITC proposal, said this month. “None of them will be involved in the engineering. We’ll lose thousands of white-collar jobs, literally thousands.”

Ackerman said ceding control to the federal government also would create worse outcomes for property owners in Detroit’s Delray community, who would have their land taken to make way for the NITC span and inspection plaza.

“There’ll be no responsiveness to anybody objecting to anything that goes on,” he said. “You have to go to Washington. You ever fight Washington? You know what fighting City Hall is? It’s impossible at the federal level.”

Before either of these scenarios would have a chance to play out, state lawmakers will decide whether to bless Snyder’s plan and create the public authority to build the bridge. Kowall’s committee plans to resume public hearings on the project this month. The issue could come to a vote this fall.

Letters: Let benefits to public decide on new Detroit River bridge

Detroit Free Press
Letters to the Editor

For months, the debate over the New International Trade Crossing has largely ignored how it will impact those of us in Delray, where the bridge will be located. We’re already home to many heavy industries that serve our state but negatively impact our community.

A new bridge will bring more pollution, force businesses and churches to relocate, and drive down our quality of life. A community-benefits agreement will ensure the bridge leaves a lasting positive impact on Delray, not the blight and health problems previous developments have left behind.

Lawmakers should support the new bridge only if our community is protected with a community benefits agreement.

Scott Brines, Detroit

Smart support

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, has spoken out in support of the NITC bridge and better control of the truck traffic in the area. I support Tlaib and her efforts to encourage state legislators to vote for a new bridge and provide better control of the traffic, which will improve air quality in southwest Detroit.

Deacon Norbert Motowski, All Saints Catholic Church, Detroit

Benefactors with a motive

With all due respect to Nora Moroun and her decision to be a benefactor, it is more than coincidental that she apparently did so recently (“Moroun family steps up its donations amid controversy,” June 27). It is another effort by that family to buy their way into getting a private bridge instead of a publicly owned one.

The Morouns own a lot of property, most of which, if not all, is rundown and deteriorating. Some of it is even where the proposed public bridge is to be built.

The big negative factor in all this is Canada, which does not want the bridge where the Morouns want it. Whom are they going to buy there?

Robert J. Shoens, Northville

Detroit’s version of Scrooge

I think we all need to recognize that what we have with the Moroun family is actually our own Detroit version of Scrooge. I don’t ever remember in my lifetime (I’m 54) someone with so much — billions — who has offered so very little to others in his community. The offer is nonstop posturing and propaganda — all while collecting millions in a phantom gas tax on their monopoly bridge, thus depriving our state of some desperately needed tax revenues. Truly deplorable.

Now we learn that in a newly incorporated charity the Morouns are going to be just a little more public with their donations. Incredible.

I read all of the online comments on this article on freep.com and found that the Morouns didn’t have a single defender, paid or otherwise. It’s apparent that most of us already know what we have here: greed and self-promoting.

Mike Doyle, Grosse Pointe Farms

Think bigger, better

Please, let’s think beyond who owns and where we build a new ribbon of concrete connecting two highways. Let’s imagine the timely and exciting possibility to creatively connect two nations with a world recognized destination. Let’s imagine way outside of the box. Let’s think about:

  • An extra bridge lane for a high-speed train with terminals at Metro Airport, the Windsor airport and at each end of the bridge, with transfer services to people movers of all sorts to the downtown areas.
  • A magnificent gondola for people transportation between Canada and the U.S.
  • A crystal glass solar roof over the bridge to provide power and to avoid the need and cost to plow snow, and to demonstrate Michigan skills in manufacturing this product.
  • Turbine power-generating pods that suspend from the bridge into the river that are raised during the winter.
  • A major hotel anchoring each end of the bridge.
  • A new hockey arena cantilevering out over the river with a cocktail lounge and restaurant.
  • International shops with parks and fountains — and people.
  • Riverfront boating, shops and condos.

Let’s think not just of connecting highways. Let’s talk about connecting two nations, people, economies and industries.

Jack Caldwell, Grosse Pointe Farms

What will $2,000 buy?

State Sen. Mike Kowall is on the hot seat for Matty Moroun’s private bridge. Kowall has the power to kill the bill for a public bridge.

I just received the second or third flier in the mail from a group attacking the proposed new public bridge over the Detroit River. It is part of a massive campaign to kill the new bridge and protect Matty Moroun’s private Ambassador Bridge.

I’m sick of receiving such mail and being bombarded by the misleading TV ads opposing the new public bridge. As one of Sen. Kowall’s constituents in Northville, I’m asking him to “stand firm against the special interests’ and lobbyists’ pressure.” In this case, it’s Moroun’s private bridge special interest and lobbyists.

It’s common knowledge that Moroun’s people have flooded Lansing with political donations, and that he has the sharpest lobbyists in Lansing. Maybe Moroun thinks that Sen. Kowall is going to vote his way because of the $2,000 donation he made to Kowall, instead of voting for the best interests of his constituents and Michigan. We’ll see.

Bob Moreillon, Northville