DETROIT — It’s supposed to unite two countries, but a proposed $2 billion bridge linking this city to nearby Windsor, Ontario, is proving a divisive idea in these parts.
The span, designed to complement — and perhaps supplant — a privately owned bridge built during the Hoover administration, has sparked a fierce debate, with the new Republican governor and his allies arguing that a second bridge will bring jobs and enhance trade, while critics say this is a project taxpayers in an already cash-strapped state simply can’t afford.
The Michigan legislature will begin discussion Wednesday on construction of the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), a project that has been under study for nearly a decade but stalled in the Statehouse last year.
While other new Republican governors have made headlines by slashing costs and killing public projects, Gov. Rick Snyder, an entrepreneur who seeks to draw more business to the state, supports the bridge, which would span the Detroit River linking the Motor City and Windsor.
Mr. Snyder touted the bridge project in his first State of the State speech this year.
He also reiterated his support this month at the annual state public-policy conference held at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, in view of the enormous Eisenhower-era bridge that connects the state’s upper and lower peninsulas.
“The Mackinac Bridge has been a shining example of what a modern bridge can do for our state,” he said. “It has lived up to its expectations. Now it’s time to build a new bridge to Canada that will provide efficient and reliable infrastructure to the largest trading partner of Michigan and America.”
An estimated 10,000 commercial vehicles per day cross the Ambassador Bridge, a 7,500-foot suspension bridge, which first linked the two countries in November 1929. Two other routes also are available for drivers: the underwater Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Blue Water Bridge, about 60 miles away in Port Huron.
Despite its age, the Ambassador is by no means obsolete. It is a primary route for auto suppliers and the busiest international border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume, with more than a quarter of all merchandise trade between the United States and Canada — the world’s two largest trading partners — crossing the bridge.
Business and political proponents argue that a second bridge could bring thousands of construction-related jobs to the state, where unemployment continues in double digits, even as the auto industry has rebounded in recent months.
Mr. Snyder has asked state lawmakers to come to an agreement on a bridge within the month. The Canadian government, expecting to recoup financing through toll fees, will pay the state of Michigan’s portion of the bridge cost, estimated at $550 million. That funding would go directly to the contractor, limiting any liabilities for the state.
Costs to complete the span, which would ease traffic congestion on the Canadian side in Windsor, are estimated at $2 billion. The bridge would be jointly owned by Canada and the state of Michigan.
The bill under discussion precludes the use of Michigan tax dollars to fund the state’s portion of the project. The legislation also provides for a five-member independent bridge authority appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate, which would have the power to issue bonds and work with the Canadian government on the deal.
But the private owner of the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge has embarked on a fierce effort to squelch the public project, dubbing it too costly, especially, he counters, if toll fares fail to cover the bill to build it.
Manuel Moroun, a billionaire trucking company magnate from Grosse Pointe who owns the Detroit International Bridge Co., has fought the project, which would take away some of his business, with TV ads and an expensive public relations campaign, saying that traffic on his own bridge is down 40 percent since 2000.
He has said he would rather refurbish the current structure or build a twin-span bridge with his own money, even as detractors decry what they describe as his monopoly and a lack of roadway competition at a key border passage.
“We’ve spent a lot of money,” Mr. Moroun told public radio-TV station WKAR in East Lansing about efforts to get information about his bridge plans to the public. “We’re trying to get the facts out there. We don’t have the bully pulpit like the governor.”
His application to build a second Ambassador Bridge span was rejected by the U.S. Coast Guard in March 2010 over problems with securing property rights and ongoing lawsuits with state and federal agencies. Coast Guard approval is required because the federal agency holds authority over navigable waterways.
Mr. Moroun’s company also has been in court after it was sued by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) over the design of a 2009 $230 million “Gateway” project that connected the current bridge and Michigan interstate highways via a series of ramps.
The state argued that the bridge owners did not follow through on plans that were agreed upon in the original design for traffic flow, instead building a duty-free store and a fuel station where the ramps were supposed to be.
A judge in 2010 agreed with MDOT and ordered the bridge owners to comply, even if it meant rebuilding the pumping station and duty-free shop, but they refused. The case continues with attorneys for the bridge company arguing that there never was a mandatory design that they had to follow.
Mr. Moroun defended his business and said his company was doing better in the court case. He argued that his plan was in the best interest of citizens of Michigan.
“We don’t need taxpayers to support the second bridge when I’ve been willing to put that second bridge up for free in an economical manner,” Mr. Moroun said in an appearance broadcast Sunday on WKAR’s “Off the Record,” a weekly public television program that covers state government and politics.
“The government wants to build a new bridge, even though there is not enough traffic to do it,” he said.
Mr. Moroun is not alone in his opposition. Last week, fliers posted as mock eviction notices were delivered to residents in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood near where the new bridge would connect. They came from the taxpayer-rights group Americans for Prosperity — Michigan, which has said that the existing bridge is adequate for current traffic rates.
“We don’t believe that the taxpayers of Michigan should be subjected to a $550 million loan from Canada,” for a new bridge, said AFT-Michigan Director Scott Hagerstrom. “We can’t afford to maintain what [roads] we already have.”
Mr. Hagerstrom also said the government’s claim of jobs with the bridge construction project was overstated.
“We don’t believe in just make-work projects,” he said. “We should just spend money to create jobs. We need real jobs here in Michigan.”