from Renewing America

A Bridge Too Far: Made in Detroit, Paid for by Canada

Ambassador bridge Detroit Michigan Windsor Ontario

February 19, 2015

Ambassador bridge Detroit Michigan Windsor Ontario
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There are two possible reactions to the news that Canada and the United States have finally ironed out the last wrinkle and can now move ahead with the much needed new International Trade Crossing of the Detroit River.  It will create thousands of short-term construction jobs (far exceeding the much better-known Keystone pipeline project) and will speed movement of goods and people between Michigan and Ontario . I know I should celebrate it as a creative example of cross-border cooperation to solve a thorny problem. It is, as the Department of Homeland Security noted, an "innovative approach." But mostly I’m just deeply embarrassed. To cut to the conclusion: we are getting a new bridge, but our neighbors to the north are putting up every penny for it.

Here’s the shortest version of the story I can tell. The Detroit-Windsor border crossing is the second busiest in the world, just recently surpassed by Laredo, Texas. It handles about a quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade, which happens to be the largest trading relationship in the world. It is also slow and badly congested because the 86-year-old Ambassador Bridge and the 85-year-old Detroit-Windsor tunnel cannot handle the volumes of traffic. Plans for a third crossing were drawn up in 2001, but were held up by self-serving lobbying and a lawsuit launched by the American owners of the privately-held Ambassador Bridge.

While that was being sorted out, the problem of how to find the $2 to $3 billion to build the new bridge remained a huge hurdle. The United States has a backlog of at least $6 billion in infrastructure upgrades and new projects at U.S.- Mexico border alone, but Congress has only appropriated funds to cover a fraction of that need, and the Obama administration has stopped even asking for it. And as my colleague Heidi Crebo-Rediker has pointed out, the United States is far behind other advanced countries in using public-private partnerships to pay for new infrastructure projects. So in 2012, the Canadians set up their own partnership and agreed to finance the whole project--including land acquisitions on the approach routes through Detroit--with repayment to come through tolls.

That left just one piece for our cash-starved government in Washington--about $250 million to build the customs plaza on the U.S. side to inspect and process the traffic coming from Canada. But even that was a bridge too far--in its budget request this year, the Obama administration did not even ask Congress for the money. Speculation had begun swirling that maybe the Canadians could somehow pay for this too, but my friend Roy Norton, Canada’s consul-general in Chicago, smartly knocked this down last year. “For people to muse about Canada paying for it really is preposterous,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “We’re paying for fifteen-sixteenths of this project. It’s silly.”

Silly indeed. But so is the whole way the United States funds--or mostly doesn’t fund--its roads, bridges, sewers and all the arteries of a modern society. And so the Canadians have indeed agreed to pay for the customs plaza as well, folding it into the same Canadian-led public-private partnership that will pay for the bridge. Congress still needs to find about $100 million to pay for staffing the new facilities (unless, I suppose, they put Canadian customs agents in the booths, in which case those worried about the sellout of U.S. sovereignty might actually have a point). But that doesn’t need to happen until the bridge is completed in 2020.

Again, I know I should be happy about this. As the CFR’s recent Task Force on North America noted, with business costs rising in Asia, the North American region has a chance to become the most competitive in the world. The new bridge will help lower costs in one of the busiest trade corridors in the world, and will make both Michigan and Ontario more attractive places to invest. It is badly needed, and long, long overdue.

But the outcome is still mortifying for the United States. When are we going to start behaving like a real country again?

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