Michigan governor touts Canadian funded Windsor-Detroit bridge

In June, CivSource reported on a move by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to go around the Michigan state legislature and build a bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The Governor, faced with a years-long block by state lawmakers signed a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Prime Minister effectively circumventing the legislature, prompting protest. Now, the Governor has taken a trip to Toronto to boost support for the bridge project and keep momentum going.

The current Ambassador Bridge serves as one of the primary connections between the US and Canada and accounts for some $1.3 million truck trips each year, providing a vital trade link between the two countries. The 83-year old bridge has a private owner, a local billionaire who has successfully kept any competing bridge work from going forward in the state. However, residents, businesses and truckers all widely support the construction of a second bridge connecting the two countries if it means less congestion.

Plans for a second bridge have been put forward almost yearly despite legislative blocks. Now, Governor Snyder and Prime Minister Harper have come to agreement on a way to build the bridge that gets around these blocks. Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, Canada will put up all $3.8 billion in building costs for both sides of the bridge effectively removing the need for approval in the Michigan statehouse. Canada will recoup the cost of the Michigan side by collecting tolls on cars that drive over the border. The bridge itself will then be administered by an international authority that contains members from both countries.

When the agreement was first announced, Matty Moroun, the current owner of the Ambassador Bridge launched a massive public effort to stop the bridge from going forward by putting a public referendum on the November ballot to require that all bridge work in Michigan be subject to a public vote. Voters rejected the referendum in the election, but the exercise does raise some interesting questions about allowing public infrastructure to be privately owned. Mr. Moroun’s company has also said that by letting the two governments build the bridge and not a private company it amounts to unfair competition, and that his company will gladly compete for the work against another private company but that is the only way the project should move forward. Given that Mr. Moroun holds no public office, his complaints have been registered but overall have little impact.

That does not mean the path is clear for the bridge, however. On the US side, Governor Snyder will still need to get federal permits, and also exemptions that will allow materials for the bridge to be procured outside the US since the actual work and materials will be coming from Canada, effectively putting the project in opposition to the ‘buy American’ provisions in US laws on procurement. The Governor has said that those waivers and permits are being fast tracked at the federal level and are likely to see approvals.

Governor Snyder also went to Toronto yesterday to work on gaining support for the project after some opposition from the Canadian public for the bridge. Some engineers have noted that the Canadian side of the bridge may sit on unstable soil owing to the presence of salt mines in the area. Environmental concerns have also been raised, Canada’s public works department said the construction of a new international border crossing will likely endanger some local plant species. The province has started relocating the plants on its own, and any other such efforts will likely also fall to the province as the Conservatives in parliament have introduced a proposal to exempt the bridge from all of Canada’s environmental laws in order to move the project forward.

Contract terms for the bridge work have yet to be announced by the Canadian government, although they are expected soon. Overall, the project poses some interesting questions for the US which is faced with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure. What does it mean to have privately owned bridges and roads in practice? Are agreements that effectively allow foreign governments to launch massive public works projects on American soil the wave of the future in an era of legislative inaction? Is government at any level in the US fundamentally incapable of executing infrastructure projects anymore? How sustainable are these paths to infrastructure improvement over the long term?  Lawmakers of all stripes will need to start finding answers to these questions as the nation’s infrastructure only continues to deteriorate.