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Detroit-Canada bridge deal may lie in Michigan governor’s hands

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LANSING, Mich. — Political observers are using a sports analogy when speaking about Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and the likelihood of a new and controversial bridge being built that would link Detroit and Canada: the ball is in his court.

With the Michigan legislature handing the Republican governor a defeat by failing this fall to move out of a committee a bill to support construction on the proposed New International Trade Crossing span, analysts are saying the bridge is dead unless Mr. Snyder revives it.

"I'm pessimistic that anything is going to happen," says Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger of lawmakers pushing through a future bridge bill.

"The legislature isn't going to do anything. It all boils down to whether Snyder really will end-run the legislature and try to accomplish something administratively without the need for input from legislators. The ball is in his court at this point."

The governor has said the state needs the bridge to improve trade, ease traffic at the border and create future jobs. He has worked with the Canadian government on ways to make that happen, including a tolls plan to co-finance the project he says won't cost hard-strapped Michigan residents money.

But bridge opponents such as Americans for Prosperity-Michigan have argued that the governor has been "disingenuous" and taxpayers will likely have to eventually foot some of the bill if such a construction plan moves forward. They cite figures that show traffic is down on the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, linking downtown Detroit and Windsor, Canada, and say projections that traffic will rise are speculative.

"The governor says he doesn't want to be divisive, but this is a divisive issue," says AFP-Michigan Director Scott Hagerstrom, citing two polls that say the majority of state residents don't favor the project.

"It really depends on how hard [Mr. Snyder] wants to push it and whether he wants to try to find new sponsors who will introduce it, and to get it through committee in both houses," Mr. Hagerstrom adds. "I don't see that happening, but he claims he's still going to try the legislative route. I take him at his word, but I also know the administration is looking for any way to get past legal hurdles outside of legislative approval. I think they will pursue both strategies."

In October, a bill backing a new bridge went down in flames in committee amid partisan rancor. Tempers flared as Manuel Moroun, the owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge, mounted a million-dollar ad campaign designed to sway state voters against a new bridge project.

Mr. Moroun hopes to build his own new span near his current bridge and has waged a legal battle, drawing the ire of the Canadian government, as he has attempted to push his idea through. He said that a new government-built bridge would be unfair competition against his own private enterprise.

Republicans in the legislature have floated the idea of a constitutional amendment that would ensure Michigan taxpayers would not bear the cost of a new bridge, should they approve such a project. But whether it comes to another committee vote before Thursday's scheduled holiday adjournment is uncertain.

Clues to what the governor might have in mind may become apparent Jan. 18, when he delivers his State of the State address.

Regardless of statehouse support, Detroit business and education consultant Tom Watkins, a former state schools chief, thinks Mr. Snyder will do what it takes to drive the bridge plan to completion.

"I fully expect that he will do anything and everything he can to work with the legislature to get this bridge built with them, but at the same time, with his business standpoint, it gets to be a point where a leader makes a decision to go [with] it on his own," he said. "I don't think he's afraid to be bold and risk-taking."

Mr. Watkins argues that a new bridge is an "economic necessity" and would provide a boost for not only the city of Detroit but the state and region because of its importance to the international trade chain. He also says a new bridge is in the interests of the nation's future national security.

"With our major trading partner Canada and the percentage of good and service that come across on that bridge now, I'd hate to think what would happen in a terrorist situation if that bridge went down," Mr. Watkins said. "Just for the auto industry alone, it could be devastating for Michigan and the country."

Should Mr. Snyder seek a second term, Mr. Ballenger doesn't think such an end-run on the bridge deal now would hurt the governor politically over the long term.

"There would be a furor in the short term over the way in which he might try to pull it off," Mr. Ballenger says of the end-run strategy. "This thing is not something that can be done overnight. To get something going without cooperation of your own legislature is going to take years and it's going to be fought in the courts.

"If the governor can spin it, as he has so far, he gets a lot of support from building trades and organized labor that this is a job-producer and a boon to our economy, it's hard to see that being a detriment to him. That is what all of Michigan is concentrating on, turning the economy around."

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