Jun 13, 2008

Ambassador Bridge representatives lash out at MDOT and military

LANSING – Representatives from the Detroit International Bridge Company received little hard questioning at a hearing of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Thursday, despite skipping the hearing they were originally scheduled to testify at two days earlier, claiming a scheduling conflict and then getting busted by the committee chair at the House Office Building where the committee hearing was held just after the hearing adjourned.

The committee has been holding hearings on the DRIC (Detroit River International Crossing) study, and the lobbyist for the bridge company that owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge, Mickey Blashfield, and company president Dan Stamper were asked about conflicting traffic estimates the company provided that has apparently angered Canadian officials. Instead, the company said the numbers the DRIC team and the Michigan Department of Transportation provided were “grossly inaccurate.”

“We have a four year result to look back at the DRIC estimates, and it shows how far they were off,” Stamper said.

Stamper said the truck traffic peaked in 1999, but Committee Chair Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint, said there has been an upward trend in truck traffic since 1972. Gonzales said 2006 was a record year for truck traffic. The bridge company, however, estimates a flat forecast for the next 40 years. Stamper said they have hired a neutral third party to do a traffic study.

The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest commercial border crossing in all of North America, and its has enormous effects on the economy of both Canada and the U.S. Almost 30 percent of all U.S./Canada trade and over 25 percent of the truck traffic between the U.S. and Canada passes through the Detroit-Windsor gateway. This U.S.-Canadian trade directly supports 7.1 million U.S. jobs, 221,500 Michigan jobs, and one in three Canadian jobs. More than $1 billon in trade crosses the bridge every single day. Increased traffic and increased security concerns led to a partnership between the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Transport Canada, MDOT and the Ontario Ministry of Transport to increase traffic lanes and capacity across the Detroit River, and the DRIC study began in 2001 to find the best place to build a second crossing.

After studying various location options, the DRIC study found the best option was to build a crossing about a mile from the current Ambassador Bridge.

However the private, for profit bridge company has fought that in an effort to keep its monopoly, saying there is not enough traffic to justify a second crossing and then going forward with building a second span right next to the current one, despite not having clearance from the Canadian government to connect it to Canadian soil. Additionally, traffic on the Canadian side of the Ambassador empties into a city street in downtown Windsor, and trucks must go through 17 stop lights to reach the freeway. Backups can be as long as 5 miles, and Canadian officials do not want to see more traffic dumped onto city streets.

In 2007 Canada passed legislation, The International Bridges and Tunnels Act, to strengthen the Canadian government’s control over all international crossings. Specifically the act says “No person shall construct or alter an international bridge or tunnel without the approval of the Governor in Council.” The government of Canada is on record as opposing a new bridge at the Ambassador Bridge’s current location.

Security has obviously been a major concern in a post 9/11 world, and only two international border crossings are in private hands. The committee presented video testimony from Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey who supports the DRIC location, and Stamper went out of his way to discredit McCaffrey. He said McCaffrey praised the Bradley fighting vehicle on CNN during the Iraq occupation, but he did not reveal he sat on the boards of several military contracting corporations. He also claims McCaffrey never disclosed he was on the board for a major supplier to MDOT. Stamper also claimed the bridge was the safest crossing in the country.

“We are the only bridge crossing in the country that has armed security 24-hours a day,” he said.

Gonzales asked Stamper if law enforcement had access to the bridge at all times, and Stamper ducked the question, saying Customs controls that; they just operate the facility. Stamper also said they had a massive floating bridge stored in a warehouse in case of a terrorist attack and the bridge was impassable. Stamper also used this opportunity to take some shots at MDOT.

“I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but they haven’t had any adult supervision, and that has allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do,” he said.

In what will be a major talking point for the bridge company to keep its monopoly, Stamper said the twin bridge only impacts the view from the old bridge. The DRIC crossing will displace 400 homes, 50 businesses and churches and non-profits. He said the company has spent $500 million since 1993 buying up property for the new bridge, but it has all been industrial property and will not affect anyone.

“We’re committed to it, and we will finish it,” he said. “We have invested half a million dollars of our owner’s own money.”

Only Rep. Pam Byrnes, D-Chelsea, called him on that testimony.

“For you to say you’re not going to have an impact is inappropriate,” she said.

Stamper also says the DRIC crossing will be built with tax dollars, but that is simply not true. In fact, his bridge would be financed the same way the DRIC crossing would. Both bridges will be financed by revenue bonds secured by future tolls. Both spans of the BlueWater Bridge and the International Bridge - publicly owned international crossing structures in Michigan - were financed this way, as well as the original construction of the Ambassador Bridge

The prospect of a second, privately-owned international crossing has been met with significant opposition, and the DRIC option has widespread support among groups and entities that do not always see eye-to-eye. Supporters include the Southeast Michigan Council of State Governments (SEMCOG), the Big 3 automaker and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Gonzales asked Stamper why all the DRIC supporters were wrong, but he was right.

“The Big 3 would like five bridges all operated and subsidized by the government to keep fares low,” Stamper said. “At the heart of the matter you have a private company that has been operating efficiently for the past 18 years. The government wants to change that and build a government bridge that displaces 400 homes.”

Testimony is expected to continue next week with testimony from MDOT, but Stamper said he wants to come back and testify after MDOT does.

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