For Detroiters, a bridge too far?

Owners of private span fight $1B plan

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The owners of Detroit’s aging Ambassador Bridge - the privately owned span that has a monopoly on commercial truck traffic linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario - are taking their fight to the people, seeking a ballot question on whether state officials can go ahead with a second, publicly financed bridge.

Battling the state’s business community, many powerful state lawmakers and the Canadian government who all favor a publicly funded $1 billion span, the Detroit International Bridge Co. has formed an action committee, The People Should Decide, to collect the estimated 325,000 signatures needed to put the new bridge on the ballot.

“The people should decide whether state government may construct or finance new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles,” according to the referendum’s proposed language.

The Ambassador Bridges owner, billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, wants to build his own second parallel bridge to ease mounting traffic flow at the bridge crossing, which serves as a key international transportation hub linking downtown Detroit and Windsor. He has spent an estimated $4.5 million in TV ads promoting a new Ambassador Bridge plan.

But some state officials, including Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, have said that any future bridge should be built jointly with the state and the Canadian government at a location downriver. Their idea has gained the support of some business leaders in Detroit, including automotive executive Bill Ford Jr., who have said the need for world-class infrastructure is key to the regions growth.

“Michigan voters should determine the priorities of where the state invests resources,” Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the bridge company and Manuel Moroun’s son, told the Detroit Free Press in announcing the petition drive last Friday. “We believe such a decision should require the vote of the people.”

A bill to authorize the public bridge, dubbed the Detroit International Trade Crossing, however, failed for the third time in a committee vote in the Michigan Statehouse last fall, putting any future plans for the project back in the hands of the governor, who has not yet discussed plans on how he might move forward.

A Snyder spokesman said Monday that the Morouns’ ballot initiative petition drive will have no impact on the governors thinking.

“Our level of commitment will remain the same,” said spokesman Ken Silfven.”This is a very important to Michigans economic future, and we are committed to seeing it become a reality. The latest antics of the special-interest opposition really have no bearing on our efforts.”

While the Canadian government has offered $550 million for the new bridge construction partnership to help the state, arguing that the money could be recouped over the years in toll receipts, taxpayer advocates counter that Michigan would eventually have to repay the funds. Total cost to build a new bridge is estimated at about $1 billion.

“Its a gutsy move. You dont know what people are going to do if it does make it to the ballot this November,” said Scott Hagerstrom, executive director of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, which opposed the most recent bridge legislation that failed in the legislature. He called the public bridge legislation “a bad bill.”

“We believe that this is not a good time to take on debt and obligations, passing legislation that has clear payoff for unions and exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.”

Mr. Hagerstrom, however, thinks the governor will likely “ignore the will of the Legislature” and use his executive power to move his own bridge project ahead. He said some think the ballot-initiative plan could force the governor to move on his own plan more quickly.

“They are pushing forward, pushing ahead,” he said. “I think the people of Michigan are just a little bit leery to commit to such a large project that has a lot of budgetary ramifications down the road.”

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