Political turmoil threatens to close gateway to jobs

The idea: Transform Michigan into theMidwest’s premier inland port and transportation hub, uniquely linking air, sea, rail and road capabilities. Create a new industry -- a Great Lakes Global Gateway -- forged from our existing manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

The vision: Take advantage of our geography and infrastructure to become the lowest-cost transportation center for freight originating in or destined for the industrial heartland ofAmerica. Creating such a gateway would offer the largest single economic development opportunity in Michigan. It has the potential to create tens of thousands of good jobs within a decade, while reducing supply chain costs by as much as 20 percent.

So why isn’t this happening already?

The reality: Overlapping governmental jurisdictions. Sputtering business and political leadership at both state and regional level. Dysfunctional and corrupt institutions inSoutheast Michigan. Fragmented authority and no coherent structure to get things done.

The fear: A colossal missed opportunity. “Opportunity is slipping away because other railroads and ports are establishing other places outsideMichiganto do this.Ohiois in the process of eating our lunch, while we’ve been embarrassing ourselves by inattention and inaction,” says Professor Michael Belzer. He‘s a former truck driver himself who has become both an economist at Wayne State University and president and CEO of Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway, a nonprofit organization promoting the idea.

The components for what you might call the Michigan logistics industry either exist already, or are within our grasp. But they have languished for years. None have been linked into a coherent business strategy. And the political institutions with jurisdiction over one part or another have largely broken down.

One big part of this is the long-planned Aerotropolis, a comprehensive airport development plan, book-ended by Detroit Metropolitan Airport on the east and Willow RunAirport on the west, with 27,000 relatively undeveloped acres in between. Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano has been a consistent supporter. But near-continuous scandals in his administration have disrupted focus and added to the widespread perception that the county is too corrupt to be effective.

The New International Trade Crossing (NITC) is the famous proposed new bridge across the Detroit River, the costs of which would be covered by the government of Canada. The advantages of the new bridge are huge, but the span has been fiercely opposed by the monopoly interests of the Moroun family, who own the Ambassador Bridge and have showered campaign cash throughout the Legislature.

Once built, the NITC would link truck-borne freight to 88 million people, all of whom could get delivery within 10 hours. Gov. Rick Snyder keeps vowing to build his bridge, but the Morouns continue to bombard the state with scandalously inaccurate TV ads.

Four of North America’s six Class I railroads have a presence in Michigan, including two with their North American entry point in the southeast part of our state. But we aren’t realizing our full potential, since the rail tunnel under the Detroit River is too small to move containerized freight, and business competition and political confusion have stalled efforts to widen it.

The Canadian government is in the process of renovating two deep-water ports for the Atlantic, Halifax and Montreal. These ports could be linked to the industrial heartland of America through the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railroads. However, other deep-water ports exist on the Atlantic seaboard -- Norfolk, Va., and Elizabeth, N.J.-- and, while we dither, railroads interesting in servicing freight are focusing on interchange and marshalling yards in Columbus and North Baltimore, Ohio.

The city of Detroit is smack dab in the middle of all this. But the city is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and now hobbled with a cumbersome and diffuse “Consent Agreement” governance system. The former Detroit City Airport, now renamed for Coleman Young, is a money-losing city “asset.” But it also lies next to an expressway and railroad tracks. With hundreds of acres of open land, it could be redeveloped into a powerful marshalling yard. Sadly, the chances of that seem very remote, given Detroit’s current state of affairs.

What is needed is focus, political will and a willingness to bust heads to get stuff done. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, after months of dithering, has finally developed a “Statewide Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL) Strategy Project Charter and Statement of Work.”

That’s a start, but it remains to be seen whether this goes beyond some nice words on paper. Several years ago, when I talked with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm about the vast potential of a Great Lakes Global Gateway, she sniffed there were “too many moving parts.” Gov. Rick Snyder ought to know better by now.

He has been trying to get his new bridge for more than a year -- and, as an experienced businessman, should realize the gateway idea is the largest potential economic development project this state has seen in half a century. And this chance may never come again.

Not to seize this golden opportunity would be inexcusable.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.


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Royce Maniko
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 9:51am
Dear Phil-Ohio is eating our lunch! Today's Toledo Blade announced a $160 M rail expansion in Bellevue, 45 miles SE of Toledo. The project by Norfolk Southern Corp.is to add 275 jobs and "make the facility the largest ( long distance freight movement) of its kind on the railroad's 20,000 mile network. Several years ago TMACOG, The City of Toledo and Lucas County led a delegation to Halifax to be in on the ground floor.....where was Michigan?
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 10:52am
Sound the trumpets! SE Michigan as distribution and logistics HUB for the heartland of North America is just what's needed - and most viable indeed (per studies of WSU economists and others). Tangential intermodal corridors (Toledo corridor and I-69 corridor) can be integrated into the Detroit-centered "inland port". Starting NOW, these "gateway" projects can rekindle the flow of people, products and prosperity into the Heartland region via SE Michigan - just as Henry Ford did 100 years ago. We got ideal natural resources for the 21st century (air, water and geological stability) -- and the human resources are either here or they'll beat a path to The Upper Hand as soon as we open it. Please - let's put our shoulders to the wheel (and build lots of bridges to the world near and far)!!! Executive Dept leadership (with national-level assistance given Halifax and Canadian involvement) is required -- also for handling the collaborative development of the tangential corridors for the Inland Port, south with Toledo and Ohio, north along I-69.
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 12:14pm
Oh, for the days of leaders in Michigan--Soapy Williams, Phil Hart, Bill Milliken, etc. How can we get the legislators to understand that this is not about Detroit; it's about the whole state of Michigan and what we will be like for the next century?!!!!!!
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 11:26pm
"the Moroun family, who own the Ambassador Bridge and have showered campaign cash throughout the Legislature." when Mr. Power has a personal view he doesn;t care what he says or implies, he just won;t bridge any disagreement. Either you agree or he will suggest that opposion can only for money. And we should wonder why open discussion or cooperation no longer exists. When you oppose the media view don;t be surprised if you are attack personally and not the questions you raise. It seems that for Mr. Power it is a governement owned and operated bridge or nothing. Why don't we hear what is so bad a about a privately owned and operated bridge? Why is it so bad when government toll road systems are being sold to private groups? I wonder why when we hear about how the Canadian bridge will solve all our woes that never is mention of a second tunnel, how I-94 shold have been expanded to 6 lanes before add travvic across the State is practical, or about the the bridge in Port Huron. Does anyone really think Detroit is going to benefit from Mr. Power's bridge more than a private bridge? We won't mention who picks where the Canadian bridge is place and why. "What is needed is focus, political will and a willingness to bust heads to get stuff done." Mr. Power's wants the old fashion Michigan politics way. "Not to seize this golden opportunity would be inexcusable." I wonder what Mr. Power is putting at risk to get this done, or is he like all the old 'politicians' that got us into the current state of affairs by promising how everything will work and we will pay for it later.
Wed, 04/18/2012 - 5:46pm
Hey Phil, You can't park a container or truck for 1 hour in the Detroit area before somebody has popped the locks and helped themselves to what they can carry off the load. How do you convince shippers that warehousing in Michigan is secure?
Thu, 04/19/2012 - 10:19am
Phil, In response to your email. Years ago I talked with Mary Ann Mahafferty(sp) about saving Detroit when the Enterprize Zones were enacted. The financial reality was that developers could not use the inefficient buildings available and the cost to demo and haul the rubble to an approved landfill was comparable to building on a new site in the suburbs. The solution was to create desposal sites for construction rubble (brick & morter) and recycle the lumber with local street labor. If a sizable piece of real estate (1/2 to 1 mile square) was cleared and a hole excavated to dispose of the demo debris, the cost of redevelopment would be more cost effective. Once the fill was brought to a level close to the surface, the site could be capped with soil and a raised park could be established. Even 10 feet above street level would not be unreasonable. As areas of the City are abandoned, they could be reclaimed initially into more suburban type gated developments that would encourage a return of the middle income families to the City. Of course, charter schools would have to be part of the mix. The reclamation of Detroit would not happen over night but it is possible with a vision and a plan. Security is a problem when the gangs run the City after dark. If the Water Plant on Jefferson has to have motion detectors and cameras to keep the taggers out, how do we protect the storage of valuable goods? Clear zones are about the only way to create security. It is a terrible waste of real estate but either the bad guys have to be fenced in or everyone else has to protected behind fences. Open space that gives no cover can offer effective security but its not very appealing. But then a lot of Detroit has lost its visual appeal. Thanks for the opportunity. Just an old retired municipal engineer.