The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 11, 2010

State House pushes new bridge forward

By The Building Tradesman

LANSING – The Michigan House on May 26 narrowly adopted legislation that would allow construction of a second bridge over the Detroit River.

The House voted 56-51 to approve House Bill 4961, which would allow the state to partner with the private sector for the construction, operation and maintenance of the border bridge.

“This is great news, and we have expressed our appreciation to the House members who voted for its passage,” said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Patrick “Shorty” Gleason. The letter, by Gleason and MBCTC Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin, said: “A second bridge is needed over the Detroit River for a variety of reasons – including national security and improved movement of commerce. But more directly, your vote means jobs for Michigan – desperately needed construction jobs that will help get our state moving again.

“On too many issues, the state shoots itself in the foot when it comes to helping Michigan residents. Other times, such as the House of Representatives’ vote on the Detroit River International Crossing, lawmakers get it right. In casting your ‘yes’ vote, we sincerely appreciate your putting politics aside and voting for good Michigan jobs. We realize we have more work to do on the Senate side, but for now, we think it’s important to let you know that we’re grateful. We will certainly let our workers know who our friends are in the Michigan Legislature.”

The legislation now moves to the Michigan Senate, where it faces, at best, an uncertain future. No Republicans supported the House bill and nine Democrats were opposed. And Senate Republicans have been quick to attack the House legislation, insisting that the bridge would prove costly to taxpayers and questioning whether Canada would have more control over the span. State Republicans also said that the bill doesn’t spell out who has authority over funding and construction of the bridge on this side of the border.

The new Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) is expected to be a suspension bridge that would be erected about two miles down river from the Ambassador Bridge. A new bridge and related approach work is estimated to cost a total of $5.3 billion, with $1.8 billion of work on the U.S. side. The span would be built using 80 percent federal funds/20 percent Michigan funds.

On April 29, the government of Canada offered the State of Michigan $550 million to help pay for our cash-strapped state’s cost of erecting the bridge. Canada would be repaid over time by bridge tolls.

The Ambassador, opened in 1929, is the busiest border crossing in North America, linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and carrying 10,000 commercial trucks a day. The governments of both the U.S. and Canada are concerned that its maintenance, tolls and access are controlled by a private owner, billionaire Matty Maroun. Maroun has started to build his own new span next to the Ambassador, but it so far has been stalled by the State of Michigan, the Coast Guard and the courts.

With approval by the Senate, construction of the bridge could commence within a matter of months. It would take an expected four to five years to build, with more extensive approach work taking place on the Canadian side. In Detroit, work would include a plaza and a connection to I-75.

There is an unusual mix of Democrats and Republicans and other civic leaders supporting the construction of the DRIC bridge, or the Maroun bridge, or no bridge at all.

GOP state Rep. Dave Agema told National Public Radio that the DRIC bridge would prove to be a financial burden for Michigan.

“Right now, with the traffic projections, it’s not there. And quite frankly, at a $5.2 billion total sum to build this bridge,” Agema told NPR, “I don’t think there’s a financial planner out there that could make this work to make it profitable to pay the principle and the interest. And that’s what we’re afraid of.”

Backers of the DRIC span include Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the Detroit Regional Chamber, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, major unions, and manufacturers like General Motors and Ford. Supporters have said Michigan risks having the Ambassador being closed for maintenance problems, or losing the lead on building a new crossing to Buffalo, New York, which is also mulling a new, modern span.

Citing recent increases in bridge traffic, Sarah Hubbard, senior vice president of governmental relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said, “The House has acted strategically in positioning Detroit as an international destination for trade and commerce, we urge the Senate to do the same.”