Future of new, second crossing at Windsor-Detroit rests with Michigan Legislature

by David Bradley

After all the debate, the studies and public hearings, the future of the new, publicly-owned bridge at Windsor-Detroit currently rests with the Michigan Legislature.

By June 1, we will know whether the so-called DRIC (Detroit River International Crossing, though I think we should start calling it the Gordie Howe Bridge) project will be built, or whether it will be relegated to the back burner and, perhaps, never constructed -at least not in most of our lifetimes.

While it took a while, and we had our own political battles on this side of the border, all three Canadian levels of government are now solidly behind the project and the province of Ontario has already embarked upon construction of the freeway linkages to the site of the new bridge.

Last year, the Michigan Legislature enacted a law mandating the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to provide two things to state legislators by May 1, 2010: “Investment grade” traffic data; and indications from the private sector of a serious interest in partnering to build all or parts of the DRIC project. Another complicating factor is that Michigan does not have the legislative authority to enter into public-private partnerships (P3s); so a legislative fix is needed for that as well. A successful P3 arrangement could remove any need for taxpayers’ money to be used to build the bridge. This point has been made by Canada’s Transport Minister, John Baird and by MDOT director Kirk Steudle. The law indicates the Michigan legislature intends to approve or disapprove the DRIC by June 1.That is not a lot of time.

The people who do not want DRIC to proceed, point to the fact that the Ambassador Bridge folks say they want to twin their bridge. But, saying you want to build a second span and actually getting the approvals to do it, are two different things. As it stands now, the Ambassador Bridge does not have the approvals needed to proceed.

If it were to file a serious application, it might get them, in time. Then again it might not.

For example, the US Coast Guard recently announced it was terminating the Ambassador Bridge’s permit application process. The reason given was that, despite several meetings between the Coast Guard and the Ambassador Bridge representatives, there had been no movement by the Bridge on a number of critical issues that the Coast Guard identified last June.

As a representative of private sector associations, in principle I have no problem with privately-owned infrastructure. If we were being offered two efficient crossings, I’d say the more the better. But that is not what the opponents of DRIC are proposing.

Under their plan, the Ambassador Bridge would retain its monopoly as the sole bridge crossing between Windsor and Detroit. We do not support this situation. It would not resolve the problems associated with a lack of freeway-to-freeway access that currently exists. It would not provide the redundancy needed to keep the border open in the event of a security breach.

DRIC is the only actionable project at the moment. It must be built -for economic and for security reasons. There is a lot at stake for Canada, for Ontario, for Michigan and for the US. Sure, trade has fallen off due to the recession but it is beginning to show signs of rebounding. We need to think ahead.

According to the US Final Environmental Impact Statement, DRIC will create more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction period. It will bring billions of dollars in investment to the area and help secure the future prosperity and relevance of the region where there is perhaps more integration of manufacturing processes than anywhere else in the world.

During at speech given at an automotive industry dinner on March 15 in Michigan, Chrysler Group CEO, Sergio Marchionne, said his company “supports the partnership between the governments of Michigan and Ontario, as well as Canada and the United States, as they work toward securing a new gateway at Detroit/Windsor.

“The automotive industry continues to support the proposed Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC. This proposed new crossing would add redundancy and unimpeded access from Ontario’s highways to Michigan’s interstates…In the coming months, the Michigan Legislature will consider a bill to authorize construction of the new DRIC bridge. It is my sincere hope that the Legislature will pass the bill by the June 1 deadline. The need for an additional crossing to handle current and future trade flows is widely acknowledged and it is imperative that this new crossing be completed as soon as possible. It’s important to our collective future!”

Truckers agree. A recent survey of OTA trucking company members found that, while there are some improvements needed at all the major border crossings between Ontario and the US, by far the highest priority is the construction of a second bridge at Windsor-Detroit. Seventy-three per cent of respondents ranked Windsor-Detroit as the most important border crossing in terms of overall economic impact.

Almost 60% said they expect that crossing to have the most delays and the most congestion when the economy recovers. When asked what border crossing ranked highest in terms of needed infrastructure improvement, 68% said Windsor-Detroit.

When asked what specific infrastructure improvements are most urgently required at Windsor-Detroit to avoid future congestion problems, 79% said a second bridge is required, compared to 14% who wanted additional FAST lanes and 4% who called for Customs plaza improvements.

When given a choice between DRIC and a second span at the Ambassador Bridge, again, the trucking industry was very clear in terms of which option it supports with 71% favouring the building of the DRIC crossing. Eighty-four per cent of respondents said that building a second, publicly-owned bridge at Windsor-Detroit is either extremely important or very important to the long-term economic well-being of Ontario.

Given the amount of trade flowing between Michigan and Ontario by truck (some $26 billion even in last year’s down economy) the same is no doubt true for Michigan’s long-term economic prospects. In 2009, 83% of Michigan’s $14 billion in exports by all land modes to Ontario was moved by truck.

While up until now, the voice of the opponents of DRIC seems to have garnered most of the attention, given the economic enormity of this issue, I expect things to heat up in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned.

-David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

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