MARQUETTE - A proposed downstate bridge - dubbed the New International Trade Crossing - that would offer commuters another option in their travels between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario has become a topic of much debate leading up to the November election, even spurring a proposal to ban building any international bridges without a statewide vote first.
Mickey Blashfield, director of The People Should Decide Ballot Committee, which was largely behind the proposal and backed by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, said the proposal gives Upper Peninsula residents a chance to vote down the new crossing in favor of other, more necessary bridge updates.
Blashfield is also head of government relations for Moroun's Detroit International Bridge Company.
Canadian Consul General from Detroit Roy Norton speaks to a group at Northern Michigan University. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"The real question U.P. residents ought to ask is why they want to risk paying for a bridge in Detroit that's not needed when there are other priorities that certainly should be done," Blashfield said. "I would think folks in this area would be more concerned about improvements and enhancements at the international bridge at the Soo."
Proposal 6 asks voters to amend the state constitution to "require the approval of a majority of voters at a statewide election and in each municipality where 'new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles' are to be located before the State of Michigan may expend state funds or resources for acquiring land, designing, soliciting bids for, constructing, financing, or promoting new international bridges or tunnels."
However, some argue the law is too vague and could stop all construction of new bridges and maintenance on old ones, as it defines "new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles" as "any bridge or tunnel which is not open to the public and serving traffic as of Jan. 1, 2012."
The amendment could be read in such a way as to require a statewide referendum on any construction or maintenance of existing bridges in the state.
Gov. Rick Snyder has been a vocal proponent of the new bridge and has brokered a deal with the Canadian government that has Canada paying for the entire project.
According to Canadian Consul General in Detroit, Roy Norton, Canada would collect tolls from the new bridge until it was reimbursed for the cost. Then, all revenue from the tolls would be split 50/50 with Michigan. He estimated that after roughly 45 years, Canada would earn back the cost of the bridge, and Michigan would begin realizing approximately $50 million in revenue annually.
Currently, the Ambassador Bridge is the only bridge in the Detroit area connecting the two countries, with the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel the only other crossing there.
Norton spoke about the proposed new bridge during a speech on the history of Canadian-American relations Thursday evening at Northern Michigan University as a part of the Sonderegger Symposium.
Norton said, with one-quarter of all trade between the United States and Canada traveling across the Ambassador Bridge, it would be devastating to both countries were the bridge to shut down with no alternative crossing in place.
"Our worst fear, and we (Canadians) frankly think with your automotive industry, their worst fear, should be at some point, the 83-year-old bridge built to last 50 years is found no longer to be operational and then we are all in a calamitous situation," Norton said. "We can, as a public policy alternative, sort of cross our fingers and hope for eternal life for the Ambassador Bridge."
According to statistics Norton cited, more than 230,000 Michigan jobs depend on trade with Canada, including 1,600 in Marquette County, 750 in Delta County and 13,000 across Michigan's 1st Congressional District.
Because Michigan intends to use a $550 million Canadian contribution as the state match on other Federal-aid highway projects - which would total more than $2 billion - the new crossing must comply with the Federal Highway Administration Buy America requirements, which requires any roads built with federal money to use steel from American companies only.
Michigan has applied for a waiver from that requirement.
Since Canada is footing the whole bill for the bridge, Norton said it was only fair to allow Canada to buy the steel it wants to use.
"It's the only way possible to proceed, since Canada is paying for the bridge and receiving full liability, obviously we could not have accepted - Canadian taxpayers could not have accepted - that we pay and have no opportunity to participate in the construction of the bridge," Norton said. "The contracts will go to the best qualified, lowest cost bidder, and that might be American or it might be Canadian, and there'll no doubt be some of each."
Blashfield said the waiver is another reason for Americans to oppose the new bridge.
"The request for a waiver to the Buy American provision that would allow foreign steel, foreign jobs, to be used in the building of this supposed half-Michigan bridge, that's a stark contrast to the economic development potential for the bridge, because it would certainly be allowed for foreign steel to be used for that, if the waiver were granted," Blashfield said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.