Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Oh, how Canada backs a new Detroit-Windsor bridge

DETROIT -- Why is Canada so hot to build a bridge across the Detroit River that its government has offered to pay all of Michigan's share of the costs? Is there some dark, hidden agenda?

Manuel Moroun wants you to think so. He is the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929 and carries more than $100 billion in heavy automotive components across the border every year.

That freight can't go through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Port Huron's Blue Water Bridge is too far away and is overburdened. Mr. Moroun owns what is essentially a monopoly.

But does Michigan really need another bridge? Roy Norton, Canada's consul general in this part of the world, has a simple, succinct answer: "Both countries need this bridge if they want to have prosperity in the future."

Forget debates about whether there is enough traffic for two bridges. Nothing lasts forever, "and an 83-year-old bridge is a pretty fragile reed on which to hang our economic future -- ours, and yours," the veteran diplomat said, smiling wryly.

Last week, during an intense, two-hour interview. Mr. Norton made it clear that Canada indeed has an agenda. But there's nothing hidden about it: Get the bridge built.

"This is Canada's No. 1 national infrastructure priority," Mr. Norton said. "According to Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper, it is North America's most important infrastructure priority."

Plainly, he thinks it should be Michigan's priority too. He has plenty of company in that belief. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement in June to build a New International Trade Crossing two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The legislatures in Ohio and Indiana have voted unanimous support for a new crossing. Ohio Rep. Terry Boose of Norwalk calls himself a "deeply conservative, pro-liberty" Republican. He teamed up with liberal Democrat Mike Foley of Cleveland to co-sponsor a resolution "to send a message" to Michigan to get on with the new bridge.

Trade with Canada "is estimated to be responsible for supporting 301,100 jobs in Ohio," he said. "Both our states will benefit."

In Michigan, the new bridge is strongly backed by just about every major interest group: the auto companies, chambers of commerce, and every living former governor.

There are, in fact, only two centers of opposition. One is the Michigan Legislature, where the Moroun family has contributed lavishly to lawmakers' campaigns.

The result is that while Republicans in other states unanimously want a new bridge, Michigan's governor wasn't even able to get his fellow Republicans to bring the bridge bill to the floor.

The other opponent is the Moroun family: 85-year-old Mr. Moroun; his wife, Nora, and son Matthew. They have spent millions of dollars in nonstop efforts to confuse the public, largely by running TV commercials independent observers say are riddled with falsehoods.

"Their television advertising tells some very big lies," Mr. Norton said. "They complain that the bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers $2 billion or $8 billion up front, and then $100 million a year.

"Totally wrong," Mr. Norton said. "The bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers nothing, It's time that somebody exposed these lies."

It is extremely rare for a Canadian diplomat to speak that strongly. But Mr. Norton is not a typical consul general. Past consul generals mainly have been trade commissioners.

But the 58-year-old Mr. Norton has far broader experience. Before he came to Detroit in 2010, he was a top-ranking minister in Canada's embassy in Washington, responsible for relations with Congress and intergovernmental affairs. He has advanced degrees in government and economics from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.

Though he is responsible for all trade issues in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Indiana, he was plainly sent here to get this bridge built. Why is Canada willing to pay our share?

"Canadians aren't in the habit of making irresponsible financial commitments," he told a group of businessmen in Traverse City last month. "What would be irresponsible would be to simply cross our fingers and hope that an 83-year old piece of critical infrastructure," would last forever.

"But sound public policy can't be based on irrational hope," Mr. Norton added.

Though he wouldn't say so, my sense is that Mr. Norton is exasperated at the unwillingness of business interests to mount an advertising campaign of their own. They have everything to gain, he noted.

Not only has Michigan nothing to lose, but not building the bridge would cost the state $2.1 billion in federal highway matching funds tied to the state's acceptance of Canada's offer.

The new bridge is going to happen. Governor Snyder found a way to bypass the Legislature and sign an agreement in June to build the crossing. But the Morouns spent millions of dollars to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would prevent any bridge from being built without a statewide vote.

Messrs. Norton and Snyder maintain that the new bridge would be unaffected, even if the Moroun amendment were to pass. But lawsuits would be certain to result, possibly delaying the bridge.

"If good people don't step up, then those motivated only by private greed will buy victory for themselves," Mr. Norton said.

You don't have to be Canadian to understand that.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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