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Political, legal issues put drag on DRIC project over summer

WINDSOR, Ont. - Summer can be a slow time for news. But not when it comes to the controversial Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project for a new border access road and bridge linking Winds...

WINDSOR, Ont. –Summer can be a slow time for news. But not when it comes to the controversial Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project for a new border access road and bridge linking Windsor and Detroit.

There have been new developments virtually every week over July and August, as events continue to play out in the political and legal arenas over the $5-billion plan, slated to become Canada’s largest infrastructure build and which would have a dramatic impact on border traffic and especially truck movement at this congested commercial crossing.

On the political front, hopes were dashed in June that the Michigan State Senate would approve a public-private partnership allowing construction of the bridge. The Senate deferred the matter as a result of questions regarding taxpayer responsibility should the partnership fail (for example, if toll revenues were not high enough). They also worried about P3 availability applied to other state highway projects.

While the senate put the matter on hold, there have been charges the Republican-dominated body has been severely influenced by Manny Maroun, the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, who has been a financial contributor to various legislative members’ campaigns, both Republican and Democrat, and a strong opponent of DRIC. Maroun wants to build a competing six-lane span to replace his current bridge, which opened in 1929.

A new version of the P3 bill could come forward in September.

Republican Senator Jud Gilbert, who chairs the state senate’s transportation committee, is seeking a compromise. His new bill would sever legislation for P3 availability from other projects.

“What it’s going to be is DRICspecific,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the Canadian front, a federal cabinet shuffle has not lessened Ottawa’s commitment to DRIC.

Former Transportation Minister John Baird was a forceful proponent of the crossing, and travelled to Michigan’s capital a couple of times to lobby lawmakers to pass the P3 bill. In May the government offered $550 million to the cash-strapped state to pay for infrastructure leading to the bridge.

The new minister in charge of the portfolio is Chuck Strahl, who was quick off the mark to reaffirm support.

“Canada’s position remains unchanged,” he said. “Anything I can do -as Minister Baird did before me -we’ll be there to make sure they know of our absolute support.”

September, however, is just two months ahead of US mid-term elections, which could see another delay if politicians put off the matter until after the electorate approves new office holders.

Currently in the lead among polls for state governor is Republican Rick Snyder, who supports DRIC so long as the legislature backs it and it won’t have taxpayers holding the bag for unforeseen costs.

His Democratic opponent, Virg Bernero, recently changed his tune on the new crossing. His spokeswoman said he “will evaluate proposals to build that second bridge” based on which proposal creates the most jobs, costs taxpayers the least, and has the most local support and the least environmental impact.

Then there are the legal issues.

The latest was a decision by a Michigan judge to deny the bridge company an appeal to federal court after the company lost at the state appeals level. US District Court Judge Patrick Duggan likened the bridge’s attempt to be heard in federal court to an improper “second bite at the apple.”

The decision means the company could soon be forced to enact an order to demolish structures such as a new Customs duty-free store and truck and car refuelling depot on its Detroit plaza, because they were illegally constructed on city property.

A day later came news that the Sierra Club of Canada was taking legal action to halt the entire project.

The organization takes issue with a permit issued to allow the highway and bridge to go forward. The group says the construction violates the provincial Endangered Species Act because it would cause “permanent degradation of a sensitive ecosystem” as well as the “destruction” of various species, “at great public expense, all to provide additional infrastructure to meet a declining demand.”

The Sierra Club points to statistics showing a declining volume in truck traffic. It advocates that cargo be moved by an improved rail infrastructure system which pollutes less.

The six-lane sunken freeway would run adjacent to the provincially-designated Ojibway Prairie Complex -an area of “natural and scientific interest” -but not through it. The Club calls the complex “an ecological relic, containing Canada’s largest remaining tall grass prairie ecosystem” and provides habitat for several “threatened or endangered species” including the Eastern Fox Snake and Kentucky Coffee-Tree.

But the Environmental Assessment permit calls for removal or transplantation of virtually all these species to nearby habitats where they may thrive and propagate.

Interestingly, the same day, the Ambassador Bridge also launched a judicial review, though the Sierra Club has said its action is independent of that of the bridge.

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