The Detroit International Bridge Co.’s sudden cooperation with Michigan’s long-delayed Gateway Project may be too little, too late.
The state’s new governor has called for a new Detroit International River Crossing that would compete directly with DIBC’s Ambassador Bridge. Not only that, but the governor is already moving forward on funding for the project.
‘Hub for Global Commerce’
“We must plan now for a new bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario,” Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican and former venture capitalist, announced last week in his first State of the State Address.
“This new bridge will create jobs, strengthen our economy, and help establish Michigan as a hub for global commerce.”
The announcement was Snyder’s first that he would support building a second bridge at North America’s busiest international border crossing.
Snyder also revealed that funding for the plan was already in the works.
$550M from Canada
Canada has already pledged $550 million to build a road system to connect to the bridge, Snyder said.
That commitment enabled Michigan to recently secure a “unique agreement” from the Federal Highway Administration to count the Canadian investment toward Michigan’s required matching funds for federal funded highway projects across the state.
“This is a key in ensuring we capture all of our federal highway dollars,” Snyder said. The move will “significantly ease the burden on the budget” and ensure funding for future road repairs and infrastructure improvements, he added.
As he had promised in his campaign, Snyder vowed that no state tax dollars would be used in the project and that Michigan would not take on any debt for the project.
“We must work together to ensure opportunity doesn’t slip away,” he said.
‘Not Just a Detroit Issue’
Snyder said the bridge was “not just a Detroit issue,” but a critical investment in his state’s close, and growing, economic relationship with Canada. He offered these figures:
• In 2009, Michigan conducted about $44 billion in trade with Canada.
• One in eight jobs in Detroit is in an export industry.
• One in seven jobs in Grand Rapids is in an export industry.
• Ports in Detroit, Port Huron and Sault Ste. Marie handle one-third of all U.S. trade with Canada.
“Every farmer and manufacturer can tell you why it’s important to have world trade,” he said. “Global demand for entry is expected to increase steadily.”
Troubled Water over Bridge
A new Detroit River border crossing has been the subject of intense debate in Michigan for a decade. The crossing is, among other things, a critical link in the auto industry’s supply chain.
The stakes are extremely high: About one quarter of the $1.2 billion worth of goods that cross the border each day are currently transported over the Ambassador Bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1929.
DIBC has been trying for years to build a second span on the Ambassador Bridge, but the project has continually run afoul of state authorities, who favored a publicly built and operated bridge. Legislation for a new public bridge stalled in the state Senate last year.
Canada also opposes expanding the privately owned bridge.
DIBC owner Manuel "Matty" Maroun has called a public bridge wasteful and an attack on his business.
Jail and the Gateway Project
DIBC is also a partner in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s $230 million Gateway Project, a major economic development project connecting area freeways to the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood. But the company and MDOT have frequently clashed on the project.
Currently, in fact, DIBC is tearing down several new structures that it had built for its own project. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards ruled in February 2010 that the company had illegally built fuel pumps, toll booths and part of a duty-free shop and ordered them demolished. DIBC refused to comply until this month, when the judge ordered company president Dan Stamper jailed for contempt of court.
Maroun, his family and company executives have donated nearly $1.8 million to Michigan candidates and campaigns in the past 13 years, including most of the DRIC opponents who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, the state’s newspapers have reported.
Snyder’s speech drew mostly positive reaction, although some conservatives remained uneasy about the project, the Detroit News reported. Snyder’s "ringing endorsement" surprised Mike Bishop, the former Republican leader in the Senate. "That issue is going to be debated thoroughly," Bishop told the newspaper.
However, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, pledged his support. "Me and my caucus as well as the governor are going down a single path," Richardville said, according to the newspaper.
"There's a road in the forest and most of the trees are down. There are still a few stumps, but I think we're moving in the right direction."
Ambassador Bridge officials issued no comment on Snyder’s speech.
Snyder is a millionaire Ann Arbor businessman who won the governor’s seat on his first try for elected office. His campaign ads billed him as "one tough nerd."