A bridge too far? Ottawa pushes ahead with new Windsor-Detroit link without U.S. funding

Each year, more than $130 billion in trade crosses the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont. and Detroit.

When it comes to big projects dear to its heart, the Conservative government's approach is press on regardless.

That's true with the stalled Keystone XL oilsands pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast and with the proposed International Trade Crossing, a new bridge to link Windsor, Ont., with Detroit, Mich.

What these massive projects have in common is they're both being stymied by American foot-dragging.

Keystone XL is awaiting a green light from President Barack Obama, which was expected at least two years ago and may now not happen until after U.S. mid-term elections in November because of deep political divisions it's created.

The bridge over the Detroit River a couple of kilometres downstream from the aging Ambassador toll bridge is a little different. Obama has already issued the presidential permit for the $2-billion project, a move welcomed by Ottawa last April. But since then, the administration hasn't lifted a finger to facilitate progress towards building it.

Canada is bankrolling almost all of the cost of the project, hoping to recoup its investment via bridge tolls. Pretty much the only U.S. obligation is construction of a US$250-million customs inspection plaza on the Detroit side of the new bridge. So far the U.S. government has not earmarked any money for it.

[ Related: New Windsor-Detroit bridge gets Obama's OK ]

The stalling has frustrated supporters of the project on both sides of the border.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, whose voters endorsed the crossing in a 2012 referendum despite well-funded opposition led by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, chewed out Washington for stalling.

“The U.S. government has largely taken a position that they don’t think they should pay anything for a facility for the United States government,” Snyder told the Detroit Free Press editorial board in mid-January.

But no one is more frustrated than Ottawa. Its point man on the project in the U.S., outgoing Michigan Consul General Roy Norton, told the Free Press last week Canada will push ahead even without commitment to building the customs plaza.

“We’re about to proceed with land purchases some time in the next few months, and we’re going to do that whether there’s been an indication from the U.S. government on a commitment to the customs plaza or not,” Norton said. “That involves a little bit of risk on our part, obviously, but we’re so confident that this ultimately will be built that it’s prudent to do that.”

For a diplomat, Norton's often been quite outspoken about the crossing. He brushed aside as "preposterous" the suggestion that maybe Canada should also pay for the U.S. customs plaza. Canada is already financing the bridge and highway interchanges to access it on both sides of the river.

“We’re paying for fifteen-sixteenths of this project," he told the Free Press. "It’s silly.”

Canada will begin assembling land on the Detroit side to keep the project on schedule for a 2020 opening of the bridge. Meanwhile, Canadian officials hope the Obama administration will include funding for the plaza in its upcoming budget.

“If there was an indication in the president’s budget that they were looking to Congress to approve the cost, then that might be sufficient for us to call the bids later this year,” Norton said. “But if there isn’t, that will indeed constitute a real roadblock.”

A serious delay in the bridge project potentially is a bigger blow – economically and in terms of Canada-U.S. relations – than stalling Keystone XL.

[ Related: Michigan voters clear the road for a new Detroit-Windsor bridge ]

Ottawa's outline of the project notes the Windsor-Detroit trade corridor is Canada's busiest, accounting for one quarter of this country's trade with the United States. About 8,000 trucks cross to and from Canada daily, according to the Michigan government's FAQ page on the project.

"Ninety-nine percent of that traffic crosses a very narrow, 83-year-old bridge that has no direct freeway-to-freeway connection. Instead, traffic travels more than seven miles on a commercial street with 17 stoplights to reach Highway 401 in Canada."

Besides creating thousands of construction jobs, the new crossing is seen as crucial to maintaining and expanding economic activity in the manufacturing sector on both sides of the border, especially the auto industry.

Meanwhile, the Moroun family has launched lawsuits in U.S. and Canadian courts in a continuing effort to block construction of the new bridge, which would inevitably suck away millions of dollars in tolls from their bridge.