Aug 18, 2008
Cropsey goes to bat for rich GOP benefactor
LANSING - In a rare Friday committee hearing during the summer break, a Republican controlled Senate special ad hoc panel convened to look into the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) grilled representatives of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration for two hours on behalf of the owner of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge.
Grosse Pointe billionaire and Republican benefactor Matty Moroun wants to maintain his monopoly of a international border crossing, and he has begun building a second span right next to the current one. Canada has rejected that idea, saying it would add major congestion to Windsor, Ontario's downtown.
MDOT announced the best location for the U.S. crossing is near Zug Island and the Del Ray area of Detroit. In June Canadian officials announced the location for the Canadian crossing will be the Brighton Beach section in west-end Windsor, adjacent to the U.S. chosen location. Canadian officials say the current location of the Ambassador Bridge in Canada leads to traffic jams and long delays on the Ambassador Bridge caused by the 17 traffic lights semi-trucks must go through in downtown Windsor to reach the highway.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, chairs the ad hoc committee, and he has long been an opponent of the DRIC study on behalf of Moroun. He has tried to kill the study in the past on behalf of Moroun, and he is holding up the Transportation budget as the conference committee tries to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.
Cropsey tried to knock down the study’s traffic estimates that indicates a need for the new lanes. MDOT officials said the increase resembles the stock market: traffics may go up and down but the trend is always up. Passenger car traffic has fallen off following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but truck traffic saw its biggest year in 2006. But officials expect car traffic to increase when states go to driver’s license can be used as a passport for egress to Canada and Mexico.
Cropsey said the lanes are not the problem causing delays it’s getting through customs, and MDOT is spending $200 million on the gateway project to improve customs flow on the Ambassador Bridge. But James Steele of the Federal Highway Administration, the top U.S. official dealing with the bridge, said the new custom technology needs extra lanes to be effective.
“If you have 10 lanes or six lanes it’s academic,” he said. “You’re not getting people off of the bridge into the lanes for the unique programs to work.”
After the 9/11 attack, the Ambassador Bridge was closed briefly, and it caused havoc with the transportation system, especially for the Big 3 automakers who depend on on-time delivery. The terrorism threat after 9/11 caused the DRIC study to take security into effect, and the federal government wants redundancy, or in other words if the bridge was sabotaged, another crossing would have to be close by but not close enough to be taken out by the same attack. Cropsey claimed the Blue Water Bridge located 60 miles away in Port Huron provides that redundancy.
But Ron DeCook, MDOT’s director of Government affairs, said some 2,000 trucks cross the bridge a day, and many are carrying auto-related loads.
“If they had to go to the Blue Water Bridge that would be a huge problem for the auto industry,” he said.
Although the Ambassador Bridge Company has already started building the second span, it appears it will have to stop just short of the Canadian side. The Canadian government has said they cannot accumulate land for customs operations in that country. The only permit the company can get in the U.S. is from the U.S. Coast Guard, but they will not issue it one until Canadian government issues a permit.
Cropsey gave MDOT a hard time for not helping the bridge company get the permit, much to the amazement of the MDOT officials.
“It’s a private bridge, we have no control over it at all,” DeCook said. “We can’t even go on it to inspect it. We have more control over carnival rides.”
Despite the Senate Republicans opposition, the DRIC project has the support of many prominent Republicans, including the Bush Administration. Steele said site of the new bridge on the U.S. side would likely be announced later this year with construction to begin in 2009.
“This has been discussed at the highest levels of government, and it has risen to the premier level in Canada,” he said. “This is a project the U.S. government is committed to.”
The committee, consisting of Cropsey, Sen. Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and Sen. Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit, is expected to hold another hearing on Aug. 27 where the Ambassador Bridge Company representatives will testify and Cropsey wants MDOT Director Kirk Steudle to answer questions.