WINDSOR, Ont. – The initial phase of construction has been completed on the Windsor-Essex Parkway connecting Hwy. 401 to a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit.
That phase consists of a couple of ramps linking what is now the end of Hwy. 401 to local provincial and municipal roads, but which will not open until the entire parkway is complete in 2014.
Meanwhile the consortium chosen to build the 11-kilometre route, the Windsor Essex Mobility Group led by Spain’s ACS construction giant, will begin major excavation of the six-lane sunken highway late this summer.
But while plans are a go on the Canadian side for the biggest road infrastructure project in Ontario, fears have been increasingly raised that the $1.4-billion Parkway will be a road to nowhere.
The reason? A political stalemate in the Michigan legislature to approve a public-private partnership (or P3) to finance, build and operate the almost $1-billion bridge connecting Canada and the US and to which the Parkway would connect. The entire project is known as the Detroit River International Partnership, or DRIC.
The Republican-dominated Michigan Senate has blocked legislation to approve the P3 because of concerns taxpayers would be left holding the bag if, for example, tolls are insufficient to pay back investors. In cash-strapped Michigan, with among the highest state unemployment rates in the US, for several key lawmakers, that has been a non-starter.
This was despite an offer from the Canadian government last spring of $550 million up front to pay for US bridge approach roads and freeway connections. The money would be paid back by Canada assuming Michigan’s share of toll revenues in the P3.
As Republican Paul Opsommer, chair of the Michigan’s House Transportation Committee, said, “My main goal is making sure that if toll revenue is not as high as anticipated that we don’t have to pay for that with taxpayer dollars.”
Enter Michigan’s new governor Rick Snyder.
Snyder, also a Republican, was elected in the US midterm elections last November.
But unlike Snyder’s Republican colleagues, the new governor, a former hi-tech executive, has given cautious support to DRIC.
This was reinforced during Snyder’s first State of the State address in January, in which he said he had reached a deal with Washington to leverage Canada’s $550 million for $2 billion in federal funds for Michigan highway projects.
Observers and bridge supporters – which include the vast majority of business leaders in the US and Canada who have spoken out on the issue – cheered the announcement as the breakthrough to get DRIC moving.
Rich Studley, Michigan Chamber of Commerce president, hailed the announcement as “outstanding” and “a call to action.” But DRIC is not out of the woods yet. Opsommer, the Michigan House leader, said he wanted “more details” and noted the governor did not have a commitment from Washington in writing.
Most Republicans have also been opposed to DRIC for ideological reasons; it would use taxpayer money to unfairly compete with the private Ambassador Bridge.
Meanwhile, for the more than 80-year-old Ambassador, there has been plenty of legal drama in recent months.
Ambassador owner Manuel (‘Matty’) Maroun – who would lose tens of millions of dollars, including substantial truck tolls, should DRIC be built – earlier last year brought a lawsuit challenging the government bridge, claiming it would be “unlawful” competition. The Ambassador has proposed its own new six-lane bridge and is seeking government permits.
And there have also been suits and countersuits between the Ambassador and state of Michigan over the bridge’s role in the recently-completed $230-million Gateway project which overhauled highway interchanges connecting to the bridge.
Michigan has accused the bridge of not completing its share of the work including a new truck ramp. Instead, trucks are detoured on a circuitous route through city streets before connecting to freeways. For its part the bridge has demanded the state open new ramps so that traffic doesn’t have to use surface streets to enter the bridge. Michigan has kept them closed in retaliation for the bridge not living up to its work agreement.
Then, in January, a Michigan court found bridge management in contempt for ignoring an earlier ruling to build the truck ramp and tear down part of a new mammoth duty free store and gas bar because it infringed on public property. Bridge president Dan Stamper was sentenced to jail for several hours, until the bridge literally began excavation work.
But the bridge has challenged even that order, saying its recent purchase of a local private property alters the dynamics of the work.
Throughout, bridge management has been adamant they are in the right. Last month Stamper blamed Michigan officials for “doing everything they can to stop our successful 80-year-old private sector business from building our new bridge with our own money. They will lose.”