There’s something like 30,000 parts in every car.
Here in the nation’s auto capital, we know full well that successfully building a car that works is no small matter, requiring experience, patience and a smattering of good luck.
Over the last four years, we’ve seen much the same factors at play in two complex events, both involving a bewildering number of moving parts. The first is the now successfully concluded Detroit bankruptcy, which involved the right people in the right places making the right decisions about a very complicated and contentious matter.
The second biggie has at last come together: The New International Trade Crossing, the bridge across the Detroit River, which features complex international economics and also persistent ‒ and ugly ‒ politics. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved what should be the last real legal hurdle by refusing to hear a lawsuit blocking the bridge brought by the owner of the Ambassador Bridge and some community activists.
Douglas George, the new Canadian Consul General in Detroit, tells me the current state of play for the bridge is “ready to go.” Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says she expects the bridge to be in operation by 2020, though that may be a trifle optimistic. A public-private partnership will oversee the design, building and operation of the bridge, though financing will ultimately be guaranteed by the Canadian government.
“Obviously, with a project as big and complex as this one,” says George, “we’ll face various issues from day to day, but it’s largely a question of working through the various steps of design, land acquisition and construction.” As a diplomat whose previous posting was as Canadian ambassador to Kuwait but who grew up in Sarnia (on the Canadian side of the Blue Water Bridge), he is careful not to throw gas on the political fires that have burned brightly for years.
Most of those flames have been fanned by the efforts of Manuel (“Matty”) Moroun, the Ambassador Bridge’s owner, to maintain his monopoly. “I can’t even begin to guess how much time has been lost in dealing with the politics,” is all the consul general would say.
But the politics have been ferocious. Almost as soon as he took office in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder endorsed a new bridge to Canada as a significant economic development project that would create thousands of jobs in Michigan. Canada is our nation’s biggest trading partner, and one quarter of all trade between the two nations comes across the 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge.
When politicians in Lansing and Washington started squawking about a new bridge, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out that the real source of difficulty was the Ambassador Bridge’s owner fighting to defend his monopoly position.
State campaign finance records show, for example, that Moroun started making big contributions early on. According to the Detroit Free Press, Moroun, his family, closest associates and company contributed nearly $500,000 to legislative candidates (mostly Republican) in the 2010 election and $1.5 million to congressional and legislative candidates in the 2009-2011 campaign cycle. Not only that, but they poured millions into an attempt to kill any new bridge through a statewide ballot initiative that lost in 2012.
Moroun did succeed in stopping any legislative approval of a new bridge in 2010, and many lawmakers ever since have been grumpy and reluctant to support a Michigan economic development project that will produce thousands of construction jobs in the near future and cement long-term trade relationships between the US and Canada and Michigan’s crucial place in them.
Thinking about all the money the Morouns have spent over the years in political contributions and legal bills, all I can say is that the Ambassador Bridge must be one helluva money-maker.
Another part of the complex of delays in bringing the NITC to completion has been, frankly, Washington. They first said they didn’t have the money to help build the bridge (the Canadians stepped forward) and then couldn’t find the $250 million or so to pay for the customs plaza on the American side (the Canadians recently stepped forward on that, too).
It now seems clear the financing of everything connected with this project will be met or guaranteed entirely by Canada, with ultimate costs defrayed by bridge tolls over the years.
Overall, the bridge will cost something like $2 billion, but the Canadians think it’s more than worth it: “A new Windsor-Detroit crossing remains one of Canada’s top infrastructure priorities," says Minister Raitt. Attentive readers will, no doubt, notice that the U. S. government, now paralyzed by partisan bickering, can’t even fund much-needed infrastructure projects for America, and that here in Michigan, a proposed sales tax increase to pay for new Michigan roads and other transportation infrastructure is likely in trouble.
Successfully getting money for infrastructure of any sort is tough. Lots of moving parts. Lots of money. And lots of politics. Governor Snyder and two successive Canadian Consuls General, Roy Norton and Douglas George, deserve credit for devoting the time, exerting the patience and having the long-term vision to persist.
Counting both the successful completion of the Detroit bankruptcy and the new bridge, Michigan is now batting two for two in a very, very tough league. Congratulations are due, all around.