The debate over construction of a new bridge linking Detroit with Windsor has, until now, largely been framed by the Detroit International Bridge Company.
Under the leadership of billionaire trucking magnate Manuel "Matty" Moroun, the company — which owns the Ambassador Bridge and has a near monopoly on cross-border truck traffic in southeast Michigan — has been successful in its attempts to keep the focus of attention away from what should be the central question:
What happens if there's no new bridge at all?
As it stands now, what is arguably the most important border crossing in North America is in the hands of a company that has shown utter contempt for the rule of law.
That's not just an opinion.
More than two years ago, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards ruled that the company was failing to fulfill its part of the public-private Gateway project to reroute Windsor-bound truck traffic off neighborhood streets. After sending bridge company president Dan Stamper to jail for contempt last year, and then putting both Stamper and Moroun in jail in January, Edwards recently took the extraordinary step of removing the DIBC from the picture by ordering the state to complete the project as designed.
Among the first things the state will do is oversee the removal of what's referred to in court documents as Pier 19. That pier, constructed without receiving any government approval, served as an approach ramp to a new bridge the company says it wants to build next to the increasingly decrepit Ambassador, which was built in 1929 and is ill-designed for accommodating modern truck traffic.
Which brings us to the heart of an issue the bridge company would rather no one talk about.
By the company's own admission, the Ambassador Bridge needs to be replaced by a larger, newer span.
That's beyond dispute.
What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that the company isn't going to be able to build that new bridge.
On the American side, those efforts are literally losing ground. In addition to the state's intention to have Pier 19 removed, the company recently lost another court fight to keep control of a section of Riverside Park that it had illegally fenced off. The company needed that land to place support piers for that hoped-for second bridge.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for issuing the permit allowing construction of the U.S. side of a new bridge, has made it clear that it won't even consider granting approval until the company can show it owns all the property necessary to complete the project.
Even if the city were inclined to sell the property, getting the requisite federal approval would take years.
Across the river, the obstacles facing the company are even more daunting.
As pointed out by Roy Norton, Canada's Detroit-based consul general, the issue of where to build a second bridge has been thoroughly hashed out. During the long binational process to decide where to locate a new bridge, a second Ambassador span was given due consideration — and then rejected.
There was good reason for doing so, Norton told Metro Times in a phone interview.
First, the city of Windsor vehemently objected to a second Ambassador span because it would only add to the problems caused by the roughly 8,500 trucks that daily use Huron Church Road to access the bridge. With 10 miles of road and 18 traffic lights standing between the bridge and freeway access on the Canadian side, "we need less traffic on Huron Church Road, not more," Norton says.
There are other issues as well, not the least of which involves the need to keep open what Norton says is, in terms of commerce, "the most important international crossing in the world."
If disaster — be it natural, accidental or the work of terrorists — were to strike, and the crossing had to be closed even briefly, commerce would be crippled and the economic hit would be severe. As The Blade in Toledo noted in a recent editorial, "The crossing over the Detroit River handles one-fourth of all trade between the two countries — $500 million worth each day."
Until now, Gov. Rick Snyder has attempted to work with the Michigan Legislature to gain approval for a publicly owned bridge that would be built downriver. The proposed New International Trade Crossing, as has been well-reported, would be a joint venture between Michigan and Canada, with the Canadians promising to provide the $550 million needed to construct the American half of the bridge. The money would be repaid through tolls.
Why would the Canadians go to such extraordinary measures?
Because they know how desperately a new bridge is needed, and do not want such vital infrastructure in the hands of a private entity, says Matt Wilson, an official with the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association.
"This issue is a passion of mine, and I know the Canadian perspective," Wilson says.
And that perspective, explains Wilson, is this: We need a "modern bridge," and that crossing needs to be controlled by the public, not a private entity.
"We can't continue living with 100-year-old infrastructure," he said. "We need to remain competitive with other border crossings."
In December, and again in January, the Gongwer News Service reported on the possibility of Gov. Snyder pursuing an end run around the Michigan Legislature, which, under heavy lobbying from the Moroun family and the bridge company, has blocked approval of a publicly owned bridge.
"... it is fairly clear the administration has been in communication with Attorney General Bill Schuette over legalities of different proposals" Gongwer's John Lindstrom wrote in January. "One factor in those discussions seems to be what strategy would best survive the inevitable legal challenge."
Lindstrom went on to report that one of the options being investigated by the administration is something called an "interlocal agreement" between the state and Canada. Such agreements are used between government agencies to provide services to the public.
With the Canadians fronting the money to construct the bridge, the Legislature wouldn't be in a position to stop the project by cutting off funding.
When we asked a Snyder spokeman if it is indeed exploring possibilities, including entering into a compact with Canada to construct the bridge without gaining legislative approval, Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven replied via e-mail:
"The project is vital to Michigan's future and our commitment to it is as strong as ever. But we prefer not to speculate as to possible options at this point. We're continuing the dialogue with our legislative partners. The governor has consistently said that his preference is to work with the Legislature to move the NITC forward. Tossing around various scenarios wouldn't be productive from our standpoint."
But it seems clear that the administration is indeed exploring alternatives that would allow it to act unilaterally. If that happens, Snyder would have the support of at least one former governor.
Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who occupied the governor's office from 1983 to 1991, told us that, in his view, the only people opposed to the NITC are those who have benefited financially from the largesse ladled out by the Moroun family and the bridge company.
Formerly a paid consultant on the DRIC project, Blanchard says that he continues to work on a pro bono basis because, as he puts it, there's no infrastructure project that's more important to the state's economic well-being.
The way he sees it, talk of the bridge company building a second span can't be taken seriously. Which means that there's really only one choice at this point: A publicly owned bridge built downriver as a joint project between Michigan and Canada.
As it is now, there is a standoff of sorts. A new Moroun-owned bridge isn't likely to be approved, yet Moroun and his company have so far been able to block construction of the publicly owned bridge.
It is up to Snyder to break the stalemate. He can do that by either winning support in the Legislature, or by finding a way to get the project moving by taking administrative action.
One way or another, though, Michigan needs the NITC. And Snyder needs to follow through on his promise to get it built.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Reach him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.