Michigan voters could nix new bridge to Canada

Canadians in southwestern Ontario are keeping close watch on the U.S. election in Michigan.

That’s where a ballot proposal, if passed, would jeopardize a new international crossing between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit.

Proposal 6 would require any new bridge or tunnel between Michigan and Canada be approved by a majority of the citizens of Michigan.

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The proposal would amend the Michigan Constitution and include any bridge or tunnel proposed after January 1, 2012.

“I think if Proposal 6 passes, it’s a no-brainer. The constitution definitely outranks any statute we pass or contract we sign,” said Paul Opsommer, the chair of the Michigan House Transportation Committee. “We’d have to have a vote by the citizens to move forward on a new bridge.”

In June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed an agreement that states Canada would pay for Michigan’s $550-million share of the approximately $1-billion bridge.

Under the agreement, Michigan wouldn't be obligated to pay any of the anticipated $1-billion cost of the bridge.

A Canadian entity would handle design, construction and operation of the new span, which will connect Windsor’s west end to the Delray community in Detroit.

Also under the agreement:

Ottawa will make annual “availability payments” to fund the design and construction of the crossing as well as for the operation and maintenance expenses during the terms of the public-private partnership agreement.

No tolls will be charged in Michigan for use of the bridge. Canada will charge tolls, which will be used to reimburse the Canadian government for the funds spent to build the span.

Canada will pay all costs of the required land acquisition in Canada and Michigan. It also will pay to construct an interchange to connect the crossing to I-75.

The public-private partnership agreement and the request for proposals must contain provisions for community benefit plans and for the involvement affected communities in Michigan and Canada.

However, Opsommer, who is also a Republican, has issues with the agreement.

“I have never come out opposed to the publicly owned bridge,” Opsommer said. “I absolutely support it. I just want to see the agreement amended.

“Many people in Michigan are convinced that once construction starts or trucks are crossing we will be asked to pay for part of the bridge.”

Windsor-West NDP MP and border critic Brian Masse said that simply isn’t true.

“If we have a publicly-funded bridge and tolls going back to pay for the bridge, it will only take time [to do so],” he said.

Shortly after the bridge announcement in June, Robert Sedler, a lawyer working on the ballot petition drive, said Governor Snyder violated Michigan law when he signed the international agreement.

"The governor's action violates the constitution," Sedler said. "He doesn't have the power to bind Michigan."

Lawyers disagreed and many believe that no matter the Proposal 6 outcome, the new proposition of a new bridge will end up in court.

A new bridge has been talked about for years. Masse remembers testifying before the Michigan House Transportation Committee in 2004.

“I’m sorry the Michigan legislature has been consumed by this,” he said.

Masse and others says Proposal 6 also puts thousands of jobs at risk.

“We have a lot of economic challenges in our region,” Masse said.

Just last week, the International Union of Bricklayers Allied Craftworkers Local 6 in Windsor said a new bridge would mean work for its 140 members.

The local’s business manager, Mike Gagliano, said he hopes construction of a new international crossing, toll and customs plaza will be underway when work on bigger projects currently underway in Windsor wrap up.

“Hopefully with the new crossing, more work will come this way,” he said.

The Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce also wants a new crossing and took to campaigning against Proposal 6 last week.

“We're urging our members to share the facts on Proposal 6 with their friends, family and colleagues is an important step in understanding this issue,” chamber president and CEO Matt Marchand said in a media release. "The New International Trade Crossing will vastly improve the economy in both Canada and the U.S.”

If Proposal 6 passes, it would protect the profits of the billionaire Moroun family that privately owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge, which is North America’s busiest border crossing.

In 2010, it was reported that 28,814 trucks crossed the privately owned Ambassador Bridge on a daily basis. It is the busiest border crossing in North America.

According to the Ambassador Bridge, more than 25 per cent of all merchandise trade between the U.S. and Canada crosses that span. Almost $500 million US in trade and an average of 10,000 commercial vehicles pass daily over the Ambassador Bridge.

According to Chrysler, which builds minivans in Windsor, the company moves more than 1,300 component shipments and 2,000 cars and trucks across the Windsor-Detroit border. Each day, Chrysler makes more than 1,600 customs entries.

Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun is behind Proposal 6. It’s been reported he’s spent in excess of $32 million on ads urging Michigan residents to vote in favour of Proposal 6.

Moroun has also contributed to political campaigns, Opsommer’s included. The Republican said he received “less than one per cent of total campaign contributions” from Moroun.

Masse said that still “taints the picture we need to look at.”

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