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The long road to Gordie Howe’s Bridge

Jack Lessenberry

They said goodbye to Gordie Howe yesterday, after funeral ceremonies that seemed more appropriate for a former head of state than a hockey player. Howe was more than a mere athlete, of course; he was a touchstone; a link to our history.

He was a memory of consistency and class, of a time when players stayed with one team most or all of their careers, before steroid scandals and when Detroit was one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Part of all this was baby boomers and those older mourning a bygone era and their own pasts.

But what about the ultimate tribute to this man, the Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River? Gordie himself was still well enough and lucid enough to appreciate it when they told him the new bridge would be named after him as a symbol of both nations.

Yet as he was laid to rest this week, we suddenly noticed that nothing seemed to be happening with the new crossing. By this time, I had fully expected shovels would be in the ground and earth-moving equipment crawling over the approaches in both countries like a swarm of insects. But all is quiet. Canada hasn’t even selected a private partner to build that bridge.

For years, we’ve been told that the new bridge should be open to traffic by 2020, but it seems increasingly clear that there’s no way that’s going to happen. Governor Rick Snyder was asked about this Wednesday, when he held a press conference with his opposite number Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario. Both parties offered bland reassurances that all was well, though they began to back away from saying the bridge would be done on time.

“We’re willing to do whatever we can to make this happen,” Ontario’s leader said.

“I believe we’re on a positive path,” the governor blandly echoed. But the truth seems to be that things appear to be either stalled or moving at a crawl.

Land acquisition on the Michigan side is still far from complete. What matters more is what is happening in Canada, which is essentially paying for the entire bridge. Mark Butler, the spokesman for the entity overseeing the project, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, told a reporter earlier this week that we could ask companies who want to build the bridge to submit their bids in “the near future,” a process that will take months.

Which means no shovels in the ground this year. “Extremely complicated,” were the words Butler used for both the procurement process and building the bridge itself.

But what’s really behind this delay? Chris Vander Doelen, a savvy longtime columnist for the Windsor Star newspaper, thinks national Canadian politics are involved. Conservative Stephen Harper, a huge backer of the bridge, was defeated by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals last fall. Vander Doelen notes

“The federal Liberals have always been tight with Moroun, whose Ambassador Bridge group of companies (has) supported the party,” he wrote Tuesday.

He thinks perhaps Ottawa is throwing the Ambassador Bridge owner a financial bone by delaying the bridge that would compete with his as long as possible. For the sake of our economy, I hope he is wrong. But I’m beginning to worry that he’s not.

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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