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Commentary: The latest on the bridge

We haven’t heard much about the great Detroit River bridge debate since the November election. That’s when Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun’s attempt to amend the state constitution to preserve his monopoly.

Earlier last year, Governor Rick Snyder bypassed the Michigan legislature and used a little-known  provision of the constitution to sign an agreement with Canada allowing for a New International Trade Crossing to be built south of the existing bridge.

The Ambassador Bridge is currently the only way heavy freight can be moved across the river, at least between Port Huron and Buffalo. The governor and virtually all business interests agree that a backup is essential.

So why aren’t shovels in the ground? Well, the short answer is bureaucracy.

Because it is an international crossing, a presidential permit is needed. The Obama Administration has signaled it is strongly in favor, but getting a permit takes months. After that, there are needed site preparation measures. Building a billion-dollar bridge is a bit more complicated than adding a deck in your back yard. But Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit, told me he expects to see actual work begin next year, or in 2015 at the absolute latest.

Yet something else worrisome has now happened. The government has never allowed hazardous materials to be transported across the Ambassador Bridge – not even when it was new, back in 1929, and trucks were much lighter than now.

But now the Ambassador Bridge company wants permission to allow trucks start taking HazMat across the bridge. Until now, HazMat has to be transported via the Detroit-Windsor truck ferry, a small, family owned operation, or through Port Huron.

To the astonishment of many, the Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT, is in favor of allowing the Ambassador to transport such materials – though not explosives. They did this, however, without consulting Windsor, which isn’t happy. And while this hasn’t been highly publicized, MDOT has received an avalanche of protest, especially from the largely Hispanic community near the Ambassador Bridge.

Now, it isn’t clear when the state will make a decision, and MDOT has not yet scheduled a required public meeting to discuss the proposal.

Gregg Ward, the co-owner of the truck ferry, has, of course, a vested economic interest in preventing this from happening. But he has been a strong supporter of a new bridge, which he expects will be certified for HazMat and put him out of business.

In the meantime, he raises two major reasons other than his own wallet not to allow HazMat on the Ambassador Bridge. First, since the bridge is in private hands, the government doesn’t inspect it, and hence doesn’t really know how structurally sound it is.

Second, the fire department has said it would be unable to respond if a truck crashed and burn atop the bridge. That’s because there’s no emergency water system up there.

Those two things would certainly give me pause. We’ve functioned just fine till now without allowing hazardous materials to be trucked across one of our most controversial bridges. And with a new bridge coming, it seems to me that in a case like this, better safe than sorry isn’t a bad cliché.

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