Aug 28, 2008
Ambassador Bridge Company says blame Canada
LANSING – I almost expected to see Sheila Broflovski in the Capitol hearing room on Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate ad hoc panel convened to look into the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) march in and sing "Blame Canada" from "South Park the Movie."
Representatives from the private Ambassador Bridge Company that owns the international crossing blamed the Canadian government for refusing to give them a permit to land the new twin bridge they plan to build, and they accused Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials of lying and conspiring to take away their business.
"It's clear to everyone in the room that Canada is driving the bus," said Ambassador Bridge Company president Dan Stamper. "It's clear MDOT succumbed to pressure from Canada."
The conflict over DRIC is holding up the transportation budget, and the committee is supposed to make a recommendation to the Senate Majority Leader by Sept. 5 on DRIC funding and language. Senate Republicans support the for-profit the bridge Company‘s plan, owned by Grosse Pointe transportation billionaire and GOP contributor Matty Moroun, to build a second span adjacent to the current bridge. But officials in Canada have rejected that idea, saying it would add major congestion to Windsor, Ontario's downtown.
The DRIC study is a joint effort by MDOT, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Transport Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Transport. After studying various locations, the study tentatively recommends a publicly funded bridge be built crossing near Zug Island and the Del Ray area of Detroit and the Canadian crossing will be the Brighton Beach section in west-end Windsor.
"I have talked to anyone who will listen that this project should be a public-private partnership," said Transportation Director Kirk Steudle. "If this is a bad project, the private financial backers will let us know."
The hearing lasted almost four hours, and it basically consisted of charges and counter charges. Steudle was asked to answer some questions that were raised at the first hearing. The rest of the hearing consisted of company officials making charges and Steudle addressing them.
The bridge company said it has already spent $500 million on acquiring property to build a second span, and it will spend an additional $400 million for the bridge. The committee wondered why it would spend the money unless it knew it could land the bridge on the Canadian side. However, Canada law does not allow an international border crossing to be in private hands. But Stamper claims they won the right in litigation to land the bridge in Canada the 1990s, and the Canadian government is simply considering their environmental impact statement before issuing a permit.
"The only people who continue to say Canada will not let us land the bridge is MDOT and federal highway," he said. "That's an indictment of the study."
Steudle disagreed, saying the information given to them by the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA)– their customs and homeland security – made the Ambassador site inadequate.
"I would encourage him to talk with the Canadian government and go through the process," he said. "If the Canadian government say they can land it, then that changes the dynamic."
In fact, Steudle said he had no problem with them building a second span, but the study criteria they used did not make a second Ambassador Bridge span the best option.
"However, Senator, I must remind you that this in an international crossing, and Canadian officials have made it clear they will not grant access unless the environmental statement is in place."
Stamper then claimed the Canadians do not want a private bridge crossing, and they are simply using the CBSA as an excuse to build a public bridge. He says Canada is to blame, and they are looking out after their people at the expense of Michigan taxpayers.
The Senate tried to kill the DRIC study in the past, but they were only stopped when they discovered they would have to pay back the federal funds already expended in the study. Steudle told the committee they will need no more money for the study. He also said if the new bridge in the DRIC recommended location were to be built, it would take at least three pieces of legislation from the Michigan Legislature to go forward. Those two facts should make the entire reason for the hearings of the ad hoc committee moot.
"I'm disappointed the debate remains between the department and the legislature when so many people have voiced support for the project," Steudle said.
The DRIC study is expected to be completed by the end of the year and turned over to the federal government for a decision on where a crossing will be built. That decision could take 30 days to six months.