Detroit international bridge project going nowhere

December 1, 2011

By Natalie Moore

(Front and Center/Natalie Moore)
The Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit to Windsor.

The busiest international crossing in the United States is in Detroit. Each year more than $200 billion worth of trade crosses the border there. Those trucks drive across the Ambassador Bridge--which is privately owned. The bridge is old and congested. Michigan politicians want to construct a new, state-of-the-art bridge. They say it will help increase trade and create jobs but the new bridge has a powerful opponent.

I recently visited Windsor, Canada, just across the river from Detroit.

I took the Ambassador Bridge, a busy overpass that truckers often use to transport auto parts.

But I crossed the river with a friend to dine on veal shank at a swank restaurant.

On the way back, my companion rolled down the window to answer questions from a Canadian customs officer.

Officer: Where are you coming from?

Friend: Little Italy, Windsor.

Officer: What brings you here from Chicago?

Friend: Vacationing

The Detroit River separates Windsor, Ontario from the Motor City. Without traffic, it’s a three-minute drive on the blue, 82-year-old bridge. From both sides, there’s a glittering view of each city’s downtown.

But during rush hour, the logjam for commercial trucks can exceed 90 minutes.

Lawmakers say a proposed New International Trade Crossing would mitigate that traffic. Ford Motor Co., for example, has 600 trucks that cross this river every day. The company says the delays from sitting in traffic hurt its business.

And bridge proponents tout that a new bridge could bring tens of thousands of jobs – just the economic medicine a fiscally battered Michigan needs.

I head to Southwest Detroit, the part of town where the proposed bridge would be constructed. Café Con Leche is a coffee shop and community gathering space.  

Rashida Tlaib represents this area in the Michigan House. She’s elated at the prospect of a new bridge.

TLAIB: What’s wonderful about this project is that it’s not like resurfacing a road and putting 50 people to work. It’s 30,000 people and 20,000 of the 30,000 are most likely going to be permanent jobs. That’s amazing. And it’s going to be an infrastructure that keeps giving and giving and giving and giving.

 

A new bridge would have toll booths, a customs plaza and to some, hopefully, bring ancillary businesses at the landing: warehouses, gas stations, restaurants.

Michigan, like the rest of the region, needs to upgrade infrastructure for the 21st century. Detroit has a huge, ready labor pool. Tlaib says building the new bridge could put those people back to work.

TLAIB: My God, there are steelworkers who haven’t been put to work in two years. How can we turn our backs to free money to putting people to work in tolling and revenue?

The money she refers to is half a billion dollars that Canada has promised to pony up to construct the new bridge. The total project is $2 billion, a mix of federal money and bonds, which would be repaid through tolls. The state insists the project would involve very little of its money.

All of the automakers support a new bridge. Politicians on both sides of the aisle do, too…including Republican Gov. Rick Synder.

So what’s holding it up?

VOICEOVER AD: Republicans and Democrats agree: Michigan’s potholed roads and crumbling bridges are a mess. Dangerous to our families and hurting our economy. But Rick Synder has a higher priority than fixing our local roads. Rick Synder wants to build a bridge to Canada instead. Special interests and contractors want the money. Synder wants a monument.

That ad was paid for by Matty Moroun, the reclusive, billionaire owner of the 82-year-old Ambassador Bridge.

He’s waged an aggressive television campaign against a new bridge and continues to stand in the way of its approval. A new bridge would ostensibly compete with his toll revenues.  Moroun, who is a year older than the Ambassador Bridge, has made his fortune in the trucking business.  In his battle, he has given campaign contributions to Michigan lawmakers who have voted repeatedly in committee to block it. Meanwhile, a judge recently found Moroun in contempt for failing to finish a project to improve bridge traffic. The Moroun family declined to comment for this story.

The new bridge that everyone is talking about would be a couple of miles from Moroun’s bridge. It would be in Delray – a Southwest Detroit neighborhood seething with poverty, pollution and peril. Simone Sagovach is driving me around the neighborhood. I see burned-out homes, smell a wastewater treatment plant and feel a sense of despondency.

SAGOVACH: Historically, it was a multiethnic community, largely a Hungarian base. Today it’s still multiethnic. But the demographics have changed. It’s largely minority – African-American and Latino. We also have Arab population here. And mostly people are poor.

That’s why Sagovach is part of a coalition pushing for a community benefits agreement if a new bridge is built. So far 500 people have signed onto the community benefits agreement, calling for air-quality protection and home improvement dollars, too.

SAGOVACH: Some people are looking to the potential of the bridge development to either be something to lift up the community, finally bring some reinvestment, some jobs that people can walk to--maybe on the plaza. Maybe there will be jobs related to the border infrastructure.

Back in downtown Detroit, the business community is cohesive in its support of a new bridge. Sandy Baruah is president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. The Ambassador Bridge is visible from his bay windows.

BARUAH: This bridge--the New International Trade Crossing would be a key infrastructure project not just for Detroit, not just for Michigan but for this entire region, which includes Ohio, which includes Windsor, Canada.

Part of Baruah’s role is attracting businesses to Southeastern Michigan. He says if there’s a bridge he could go to manufacturers and international companies and tell them he can guarantee them ease of access between the U.S. and Canada.

Right now he doesn’t have that selling point. And it’s a challenge.

Jack Lessenberry is a professor at Wayne State University. Lessenbery says Governor Synder may eventually have to circumvent the Michigan legislature to get the bridge approved by perhaps using a bond authority.

Getting the bridge built is just that crucial.

LESSENBERRY: It would prepare Michigan to compete for the economy of the 21st century. If this built doesn’t get built, Detroit would be further cut out of the economic action.

While it waits for the bridge, there are two other border states that might like to take its place: Ohio and New York.