Michigan Legislature watchers say the state’s Senate could vote within the next few weeks on a bill that would let the state enter into public-private partnerships for the first time in history.
If it passes the Senate, the legislation will almost certainly be signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), who has come out in favor of the legislation. The corresponding bill passed the Michigan House on May 26.
Backers say allowing the state to enter into public-private partnerships would open the door to about $5 billion in private investment in more than a half- dozen highway, bridge and rail projects in the state at a time when public funds are scarce.
“Much of the current debate in the Senate is about the nuts and bolts of how to operate a P3 and how to provide adequate legislative oversight for the Dept. of Transportation’s P3 decisions,” says Bill Shreck, MDOT’s communications director.
But some of the debate focuses on one project proposed in the bill: construction of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) Bridge, which would become the second bridge connecting Detroit with Windsor, Ont.
Not surprisingly, the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, which for 80 years has been the lone span linking the Canadian and U.S. cities, is fiercely opposed to the DRIC, which would cross the Detroit River about two miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge. The area’s other international bridge is about 60 miles northeast and connects Port Huron, Mich., with Sarnia, Ont.
“The Ambassador Bridge has done an excellent job for 80 years without any taxpayer dollars,” says Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of CenTra Inc., parent company of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge.
Moroun’s company plans to build a second six-lane span beside the Ambassador Bridge’s existing four-lane structure. The new $400-million to $500-million span would tie into the existing approaches. “We’re already looking for contractors to build it,” says Moroun.
But the time it takes to get through customs, not the number of lanes on a bridge, generally governs the speed of international traffic flow, he says.
The Ambassador Bridge owners project no growth in traffic over the next 25 years and say there’s no need for a competing bridge.
Backers of the proposed DRIC bridge point to a Canadian traffic study that says traffic will roughly double between 2016 and 2040. The Detroit-Windsor-Port Huron-Sarnia region is already the busiest international border crossing in North America, with more than $1 billion in goods crossing daily, according to the Sarah Hubbard of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The public-private DRIC bridge project would comprise five components: a $385.9-million connection to U.S. Highway 75 and a $413-million customs plaza in Detroit; the $949-million bridge; a $387.6-million customs plaza in Windsor, and a $1.67-billion, 6.8-mile parkway connecting the plaza to Canada’s Highway 401.
The Canadian government recently erased one potential sticking point when it volunteered to pay $550 million of the construction costs originally slated to come from Michigan—in addition to paying its own $2.06-billion share of the project.
Canada plans to recoup the construction costs from tolls and fees. Private investors will finance the $949-million bridge structure.
As a result, private investors, the U.S. federal government and the Canadian government would pay all the bridge’s construction costs.
“It’s a significant infrastructure improvement at no cost to Michigan,” says MDOT director Kirk Steudle.
“The increased financial participation by Canada will ensure that a new, efficient and secure border-crossing system is in place as soon as possible to maintain Windsor-Detroit as the premier commercial crossing in North America,” says Mark Butler, spokesman for Transport Canada. “A new crossing will support tens of thousands of jobs in Detroit and Windsor, in Michigan and Ontario, and, indeed, throughout the United States and Canada.”
MDOT’s Shreck says if the proposal becomes law this summer, he would expect that preliminary work on land purchases, utilities and demolition could start this fall. But, he says, “I expect we’d be a year or two away from breaking ground.”