Michigan governor's signing of interlocal agreement paves way for new international bridge

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 7: July/August 2012

After two years of seeking options and legislative support to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appears to have found a way to make it a reality.

He signed in June what’s known as an “interlocal agreement” with the Canadian government — a move that bypasses the Legislature and that the governor says is within his constitutional authority. The result, assuming any legal challenges are overcome, will be the opening of the New International Trade Crossing.

Canada will pay all costs associated with bridge construction, including the acquisition of property on Michigan’s side of the border. Canada’s investment will be repaid through bridge tolls, after which Michigan will receive a share of toll revenues as well.

Proponents say a new bridge is badly needed to aid the flow of goods between the United States and Canada (the largest trading partner of each of the 11 Midwestern states). Twenty-five percent of cross-border trade between the two countries travels over the Detroit River via the 83-year-old, privately owned Ambassador Bridge — the busiest commercial crossing in North America.

Ohio Republican Sen. Gayle Manning is one of many lawmakers in the region who wanted to see the bridge approved. Earlier this year, she sponsored a resolution (SR 141) adopted by the Ohio Senate urging Michigan to OK the crossing. (The Ohio House passed a similar resolution.)

“After I learned about the economics of it and how important it was for Ohio’s economy,” Manning says, she decided it was important for legislators in her state to voice support for the bridge. More than 300,000 jobs in Ohio are tied to trade with Canada.

Manning’s measure passed unanimously in the Ohio Senate, but the issue has been much more controversial in Michigan, where there has been resistance to public investment or involvement in constructing a new bridge.

Owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge have sought to build a twin span, but have been unable to get approval from U.S. authorities.

Professor Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Transportation Centre at the University of Windsor, says some Michigan policymakers prefer the Ambassador Bridge’s private infrastructure model, which reflects their wishes to turn more traditional government functions over to the private sector.

Opponents of a new bridge also point to trade data showing that cross-border truck traffic has actually declined over the last few years.

But whatever the level of traffic, Anderson says, “The status quo has never been considered acceptable,” noting that the Ambassador crossing was never properly integrated into the highway system.

“So you have the most important crossing, in the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world,” he says, “and it is moving trucks through municipal roads” where they hit city traffic and stoplights. (Canada is building a new highway through Windsor that would link directly with the new bridge.)

Another concern has been the reliance on a single bridge — the Ambassador — to move goods.

“It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular like the bridge falling down or a terrorist attack,” Anderson says. “Anything that could interrupt service on that bridge would create huge economic disruptions.”