December 13, 2010 1:45 AM, EST

Michigan Senate Kills Legislation Enabling New Detroit Bridge

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Dec. 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

A bill that would have enabled construction of a new, publicly owned bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, has died in the Michigan legislature.

State Senate leaders refused, just hours before the 2010 session ended Dec. 2, to let the full chamber vote on legislation that would have granted the state authority to partner with Canada and private investors to build the new span.

As a result, a new crop of overwhelmingly Republican House and Senate members, along with GOP Governor-elect Rick Snyder, will determine if the $5.3 billion project has a future. 

The refusal by Senate leaders to allow an up-or-down vote is “mindboggling,” said Dave Miller, a trucking industry consultant and spokesman for Con-way Freight in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“When you talk about the implications in the region that we have delayed [a multi-billion dollar] investment in infrastructure that, if the reports are accurate, represents almost 10,000 new jobs,” Miller said. “Who can look in the mirror and know that they’ve voted against this type of effort?”

Passed by the Michigan House during the summer, the bridge bill never made it out of the Senate Transportation Committee, even though Canadian officials said the project was so important it was willing to cover Michigan’s $550 million share of construction costs.

Michigan would repay Canada with its share of tolls from the bridge, known as the DRIC for Detroit River International Crossing.

“We should have broken ground last spring,” said former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard (D), “when you’re talking about the state of Michigan’s economy, as depressed as it is, with the possibility of a huge infrastructure project to create 10,000 jobs.”

Blanchard, a former ambassador to Canada, was hired as a consultant to help Michigan on the bridge project, which he called the biggest infrastructure project around the Great Lakes in decades.

Ontario Trucking Association President David Bradley blasted the Senate for not voting on the DRIC.

Senators, Bradley said, have stalled the project, “costing Michigan and Ontario tens of thousands of construction jobs next year” and further damaging economic recovery “by signaling to potential investors that the all-important trade link between Ontario and Michigan will continue to be tenuous.”

For very large trucks, the only available crossing at Detroit-Windsor is the Ambassador Bridge, which critics call inadequate for North America’s busiest trade corridor.

“On a typical day, Ford has 600 trucks crossing the border between Ontario and Michigan,” said Marcey Evans, manufacturing communications manager for Ford Motor Co. “If anything were to happen to stop or disrupt traffic for any extended period of time on the current Ambassador Bridge,” Evans said, “the economic effects for Ford, our suppliers and the hundreds of other businesses that depend on the crossing, would be devastating.”

The 81-year-old structure is owned by Matty Moroun, who, with his family, waged a heavily-financed battle in the legislature to block the DRIC.

The Ambassador is a “monopoly” that impedes “economic vitality,” said Miller, who until his recent retirement from Con-way was its senior vice president of global policy and economic sustainability.

The Michigan Department of Transportation estimates truck traffic at the bridge, where more than 650,000 trucks crossed the first quarter of 2010, will rise 100% by 2035.

In a statement prepared for Transport Topics, Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the Ambassador Bridge firm, said the death of the bridge bill “reinforces that the DRIC project is dead.”

It is time for Michigan and Canadian bureaucrats to accept the facts and “stop interfering” with his family’s attempt to build a second span alongside the Ambassador’s existing one,  Moroun said.

Canada has said it will not permit a second Ambassador span because of increased traffic in downtown Windsor.

Snyder would support a second bridge in Detroit but not at taxpayers expense and not without a “creditable” and “independent” study showing sufficient traffic to warrant a new crossing, his transition spokesman, Bill Nowling, told TT. “We have not seen an independent third-party study that shows that there’s going to be a long-term need for the bridge,” Nowling said.

Blanchard said Snyder will quickly realize the necessity for a new bridge. “It’s our trade future, it’s our economic future, and it’s all about jobs,” he said, adding  that Canada and the United States are each other’s biggest trade partners. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Likewise, Keith Ledbetter, director of the Michigan chapter of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said he doubted Snyder’s campaign position on the lack of a creditable study “will stand the test of time.”

“I’d be surprised with such a major economic investment tool at the governor’s disposal that it wouldn’t be worth some of [his] time and effort” to do a study, Ledbetter said.