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Not paying our own way

Jack Lessenberry

The Obama Administration is about to do something that is fiscally prudent and makes good political sense, but which leaves me a little bit ashamed.

I’m talking about the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River, something that will be of enormous benefit to Canada and the United States – and especially to Michigan and Ontario.

For years, any new bridge was blocked by Matty Moroun, the owner of the eighty-five year-old Ambassador Bridge. Through huge contributions to Michigan politicians, he managed to prevent the badly needed new bridge for years.

But the good guys eventually won, thanks to Canada and Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder found a creative way to get around the legislature and conclude a deal. And the Canadians, who realize more than we do how necessary the bridge is, are paying all Michigan’s costs up front. That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.

We are to pay them back years from now out of our share of the toll revenue. But the bridge will also be an international border crossing, and that requires a customs plaza. That’s a federal government responsibility, and the one thing the Canadian government asked us to pay for.

Roy Norton, Canada’s former consul general in Detroit, told me

“we think it’s only fair for you to pay one-sixteenth of the cost.”

But President Obama would not put the $250 million needed for the plaza in last year’s or this year’s budget, despite intensive lobbying to do so by then-congressman and now U.S. Senator Gary Peters. And the reason why was pretty clear.

Some months ago, a frustrated and politically naïve transport minister said that the project was so important to Canada that if necessary, Ottawa would pay for our customs plaza. President Obama then likely concluded, why buy the cow if they are willing to give you the milk for free? Well, it’s now clear what is going to happen.

Sometime soon, both countries will announce that Canada will, in fact, pay for the customs plaza, and we will again reimburse our partner years from now, again out of our share of the eventual toll revenue. I have no idea how long this will take, or whether we will be charged interest on what amounts to a loan.

But that’s the plan.

This may now be politically necessary. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and it is by no means certain that they would approve a customs plaza, even though this bridge is vitally important to American business interests.

New Lansing-area congressman Mike Bishop has long taken heavy contributions from Matty Moroun, and is still pledging to do anything he can to block a new bridge.

But the bridge will be built. Planners hope it will be open to traffic and heavy freight by 2020, when the Ambassador Bridge will be 90 years old and long past its expected lifespan.

All this is certainly a good deal for this country, especially Michigan. Still, the fact that the supposedly richest nation on earth isn’t even willing to pay for its own customs plaza strikes me as shameful. Somehow, you’d think this country would have a little more pride.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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