After years of struggle, the battle over a second bridge that would link Detroit and Windsor took a new turn.
The state Senate ended an argument between Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Manuel Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, after members in the Senate Economic Development Committee voted to kill bills 410 and 411, which would allow for the creation of a second bridge to Canada. The Oct. 19 vote was made based on senators’ belief that the bills lack protections against public funding, Snyder’s projections of the bridge’s economic impact were overly ambitious and the likelihood that the project’s cost will exceed estimates.
While Snyder proposed that Michigan and Canada co-own the new bridge, Moroun wants to privately construct and own the potential second bridge.
Mike Murray, chief of staff for state Sen. Mike Kowall (R–White Lake), said Kowall voted against the bill because he could not be sure that taxpayer dollars would not be used to fund the bridge.
“While the supporters are absolutely sincere in their belief that taxpayers will not be on the hook for any of this … it could be changed quite literally tomorrow by simple majority vote,” Murray said.
Pointing to the Mackinac Bridge, built in 1957, and the Zilwaukee Bridge just north of Saginaw, Murray said it is not unprecedented for lawmakers to shift the burden of funding public projects from their original private sponsors to taxpayers. Murray said the evidence suggests that the costs of building bridges as large as the proposed New International Trade Crossing are often higher than expected.
“Ballparking it, instead of $2.4 billion, this thing may cost upwards of $4.5 or $5 billion when all is said and done,” Murray said.
Estimations for “cost overruns” of the proposed bridge ranged from 16 percent to 108 percent, according to Murray. He added that because of the decline in traffic on the Ambassador Bridge over the last 10 years, it is likely that the new bridge would not be as profitable as Snyder projected, and the state would therefore resort to charging tolls for entry.
Snyder and other proponents of the project, who have attributed the decline to the economic downturn and citizens’ fear of terrorism, have remained optimistic about the future of the proposed bridge.
State Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) said the project is central to improving the state’s economy, citing the fact that one out of seven jobs in Michigan is a result of commerce with Canada. Jones said this statistic indicates the bridge’s potential effect on Southeast Michigan.
“It has to be built,” he said. “There’s no choice.”
Snyder and other advocates of the project have also pushed for the construction of the bridge due to the flourishing commerce between Michigan and Canada, which has proposed to pay a $550 million share of any international bridge project. According to a report Snyder released in September, Canada is Michigan’s largest trade partner with $62 billion in trade in 2010 — a 40-percent increase over 2009.
The project would also create 10,000 temporary construction jobs and would generate or preserve 25,000 jobs in Michigan through 2035, according to the report.
“Reinventing Michigan to become a world trading center means developing an infrastructure that will meet the modern day demands of an international economy,” Snyder wrote in the proposal to the senate. “This project has the potential to return Michigan to the prominence it held for most of the last century.”
However, Jones said he is concerned about the age of the Ambassador Bridge — which opened in 1929 — and Moroun’s ownership of it.
“He could decide to sell it next week, and he could sell it to somebody who’s very friendly with China or Iran,” he said. “That really concerns me. What if they decide to shut it down for six months and cut off all of our commerce?”
Moroun has offered to fund an addition to the Ambassador Bridge, which Murray supports since it comes at no risk to taxpayers. But Snyder has insisted on the bridge construction being a public project since he first endorsed the New International Trade Crossing in January.
Despite the Senate’s apprehension, Snyder spokesman Ryan Kazmirzack said the governor would continue to push for the project, though he declined to comment on how Snyder would do so.
“We’re still committed to working on this,” Kazmirzack said. “We’ve had a setback, but we are looking for quick action. This is a project that is very important.”