Mich. taxpayers trump gov., force Canadian bridge proposal on ballot

Stephanie Wang | Contributor

Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder bypassed his state’s legislature and struck a $2 billion deal with Canada to build a U.S. taxpayer-funded bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. Now a taxpayer group is playing a trump card: a November ballot measure that would put the construction decision in the hands of Michigan voters themselves.

The government-owned New International Trade Crossing bridge, which will divert traffic from a privately owned Detroit River crossing just two miles away, has become the latest stimulus project to be criticized as an unnecessary make-work effort.

Former Democratic Governor Jenifer Granholm, now a Current TV host, first proposed it but couldn’t push the idea through the state legislature. Snyder, however, hasn’t let the concept go. Instead of working with state lawmakers, he bypassed them and reached an agreement with the Canadian government.

The bridge project will cost nearly $4 billion to build, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Canada will supply the project with $550 million. The U.S. government will supply $2 billion in transportation stimulus funds and contribute another $264 million to build a customs plaza in Detroit.

The Canadian government’s contribution, however, is technically a loan to Michigan — not a gift. Our neighbors to the North will recoup their $550 million by collecting that amount, over time, from Michigan drivers’ bridge tolls.

Meanwhile, Canada will effectively own the bridge.

And while Snyder has plugged the bridge project as a freebie for Michiganders, the $2 billion in federal government funds isn’t exactly free money.

“Last time I checked,” Mickey Blashfield, director of governmental relations for the existing Ambassador Bridge, told the Detroit Free Press, “Michigan taxpayers are also federal taxpayers.”

Construction on the bridge is expected to take 48-52 months.

Gov. Snyder has argued that the three existing routes between Canada and Michigan — including two bridges, a tunnel and a railway crossing — can’t handle the high traffic volume already in existence.

But Blashfield told The Daily Caller that most traffic delays are caused by post-9/11 changes in customs policies.

Gary Wolfram, a Hillsdale College professor of economics and public policy, released a report for the Ambassador Bridge showing that traffic has significantly decreased from a peak of 12.44 million vehicles in 1999. In 2010, the bridge carried just 7.23 million.

The number of crossings along the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is also down from its 1999 peak of 9.6 million, carrying just 3.6 million vehicles two years ago. The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron peaked in 2000 at about 6 million crossings; in 2010, that number was down to 4.7 million.

“Given the fact that traffic at all three crossings (not counting the rail crossing) is down substantially from 1999, with little sign that it can recover even in the next decade,” said Wolfram, “the likely scenario is that the new government [funded] bridge will primarily drain traffic from the existing crossings.”

Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns the existing Ambassador Bridge, had previously committed to work on a second bridge span. The sole remaining hurdle is an environmental assessment process. That new span would reportedly take less time to build than the bridge Gov. Snyder is advocating.

Wolfram also said that while the governor boasts of new jobs the new bridge could generate, that job creation would be offset by decreased revenues at the other three bridges.

“Imagine that the Canadian government gave the state of Michigan $1 billion to hire Michigan citizens to build 1,000 hotels in downtown Detroit,” Wolfram explained. “We would see all the workers building the hotels, and it would seem like we were providing jobs for lots of Michigan citizens.”

“But in the end we would have driven out of business all the existing hotels. … And the resources used to build the new hotels — including the labor of the workers who built the hotels — would have been taken away from some other construction.”

Gov. Snyder has declined Blashfield’s requests for a meeting to discuss the bridge proposal, so he launched a citizen petition to put a voter initiative on the ballot in November. The measure would require any bridge effort to be approved by Michigan voters.

Last week The People Should Decide, the ballot committee behind the effort, said it had gathered more than 420,000 signatures. It needed fewer than 320,000 to qualify.

Blashfield told TheDC that he saw a large surge in petition signatures after Snyder decided to bypass the legislature and take his bridge deal to the Canadian government instead.

Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan free-market think tank, agreed that Snyder’s decision to bypass the legislature was “disturbing.” But he said that if Snyder found state lawmakers unreasonable, there’s no reason he couldn’t have put the bridge initiative on the ballot himself.

“If the Legislature is indeed the problem, Michigan’s Constitution provides for an initiative process,” McHugh said, “This allows someone to bypass recalcitrant legislators and appeal directly to the people, preserving the democratic process.”

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