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Wednesday, July 6,2011

New bridge debate takes spotlight

by Kyle Melinn

I’m sitting along  the Grand Haven channel watching the boats float by, my mind meandering through such hard-hitting subjects as my cheeseburger and the benefits of suntan lotion when my apolitical father-in-law shatters my serenity with:

"So, Kyle, what can you tell me about the bridge?" My father-in-law dislikes talking politics. He embraces the topic only after sports, weather, celebrity news and other subjects of much higher importance are exhausted.


To me, the question made it official. Thanks to the Detroit International Bridge Co.’s expansive television ad buy, Lansing’s long-running drama over the Detroit River International Crossing/ New International Trade Crossing has gone mainstream.


Once Gov. Rick Snyder announced in his State of the State that he was picking up the baton from Jennifer Granholm on the proposed public bridge, Manuel "Matty" Moroun’s DIBC kicked off a PR media blitz to get the public — and by extension lawmakers — in its corner.


To Moroun, the longer the Ambassador Bridge is the only option for semi-trucks carrying product between Windsor and Detroit, the longer his family keeps one of the sweetest gigs around. Not only is the Ambassador Bridge one of the world’s only privately owned international crossings, it’s also one of the busiest.


It’s because for traffic going from Ontario to points west in the United States, there is no good alternative.


The tunnel is too small. The Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia is busy, too, and out of the way. Toronto traffic looking to go to Chicago now rumbles through Buffalo to the Ohio Turnpike to avoid the Ambassador Bridge bottleneck.


General Motors, Ford and the state’s remaining manufacturers are demanding the second span. Movement of parts from their Ontario suppliers to their Michigan plants isn’t fast or predictable enough. The auto executives are tired of it.


As it stands, truckers stop-and-go through some 15 traffic lights in Windsor before they even get to the four-lane Ambassador Bridge. After they idle through Customs, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour, they weave through Detroit’s Delray neighborhoods before finding a freeway entrance ramp.


This is 2011. No-hassle, freeway-to freeway access shouldn’t be hard — at least they’ve convinced the governments of Canada and the United States of that. The answer is a new bridge that would be built a few blocks south of the Ambassador Bridge that connects the Canadian 101 with Interstate 75.


Under the plan, Michigan, the United States and Canada would create a new authority, similar to the entity that runs the Mackinac Bridge. It would use mostly Canadian money to build a six-lane span. A private company would run the project. Over time, toll revenue would pay back the initial investment.


The whole idea scares the dickens out of Moroun and his family. They stand to lose a lot of money in the whole deal. Sure, they’d still get local traffic driving over their bridge, but the real money is in the trucks and the duty free diesel sold on site.


If there’s a faster, more convenient, larger, newer bridge to travel for trucks, why would they bother with the Morouns’ 83-year-old bridge? Goodbye truck toll and fuel revenue.


It’s hard to feel sorry for the king of a monopoly, so the Morouns are playing into the fears of the general taxpayers by making the argument that if the proposed bridge and the Ambassador Bridge co-exist, neither will pull in enough money to cover costs.


And even though the Legislature is considering a bill that specifically relieves the state from any financial obligation if the proposed bridge loses money, they claim that the private investors who front any money for the bridge’s construction will come knocking on Michigan’s door anyway. There’s no proof any of this will happen. There’s also no proof it won’t.


Building a bridge is a lot of money. Even though the 50-year-old Mackinac Bridge has paid off all its outside construction debts, the bridge’s authority still owes the state of Michigan close to $50 million in advances. The Mackinac Bridge Authority pays the money when it can.


Meanwhile, Moroun & Co. want to build their own replacement bridge, but they’re fighting with Windsor over that. Both sides claim the other is causing the delay. Nobody knows the real story there, but it’s safe to say Canada doesn’t want the "double span," despite the best efforts of Moroun Legal.


The Legislature is kicking the bridge debate into the fall, in the hopes public opinion has settled down and a better PR strategy is found. Meanwhile, Moroun has kept his legacy alive. The question is …"For how long?"


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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