February 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

Canada fears U.S. could hold up Detroit River bridge

Detroit— Canadian officials say President Barack Obama’s budget proposal Tuesday needs to make a funding commitment for the proposed New International Trade Crossing between Detroit and Windsor or the $2.1 billion project risks a delay.

The Canadian government is hoping Obama’s spending plan will include the $250 million U.S. officials were expected to contribute or make a solid commitment for the money in the coming years, said Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit. A failure to do so could push completion of the bridge beyond the projected 2020 target date, Norton said.

Canadian officials have agreed to spend more than $630 million over two years to fund the new bridge that both countries consider essential for easing trading and creating regional job growth. If it comes to fruition, a new span will be built roughly two miles downriver from the Ambassador Bridge owned by Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who spent more than $30 million on an unsuccessful 2012 ballot measure to try to derail the project.

“We haven’t gotten any sign from the (Obama) administration that the money will be included in this year’s budget, so I suppose that’s a source of some anxiety,” Norton said. “We are proceeding and demonstrating our goodwill, and we welcome a demonstration of goodwill from the U.S. side — even if it’s only a commitment and not the money itself this year.”

Supporters argue the two bridges would alleviate traffic backups at the Ambassador and increase jobs-creating trade between the two countries. The U.S.-Canadian venture would connect Interstate 75 and I-94 traffic on the Detroit side of the river with Windsor-Essex Parkway traffic in Windsor.

Key project for Detroit

“Anything that holds up the completion of this (bridge) project will hold up the development of tens of thousands of jobs,” said Mark Belzer, associate professor of economics at Wayne State University.

The bridge will turn Detroit into a logistics hub or “inland port” with the spinoff development of major warehousing and distribution facilities from the trade traffic, Belzer said.

“This is the key to putting people back to work in Detroit,” he said, adding: “If the president wants to inhibit economic development, he couldn’t do anything better than holding up the funding for the bridge.”

The $250 million will be used to construct a customs plaza on the U.S. side of the Detroit River.

Gov. Rick Snyder said earlier this month the Obama administration has refused to commit money for property acquisition or rents.

“The U.S. government, which will use this plaza to protect the United States, has said they don’t want to buy land for this plaza or pay rent to use this plaza,” he said.

But a Snyder spokeswoman struck a more optimistic tone this week about the bridge.

“Things are on track and well underway, and (the bridge project) has accomplished some significant milestones,” Sara Wurfel said.

There is “time to work out” the plaza issue, “and we’re going to work nonstop with the administration and congressional partners to help address this last, key remaining issue.”

U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, is attempting to jump-start the funding issue.

On Feb. 11, he introduced legislation calling for congressional approval of the $250 million to begin work on the plaza.

Peters said he is aware of the frustration expressed by some members of the Canadian Parliament about delays in securing the U.S. financing commitment, but added the situation is moving about as quickly as it can in this political climate.

“Obviously in an intricate project with so many partners ... so many moving parts, bringing everyone to the table and getting the ball rolling takes time,” Peters said.

“For projects, even those that have across-the-board support ... it’s contentious enough (in D.C.) to get bills through ... .”

“In the post-earmark era we live in, this is how things have to be done.”

Challenging timeline

As Canadian officials wait on U.S. funding, they are moving ahead on both sides of the river.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper released his budget plan that included a proposed $470 million for the project to go along with a previously committed $160 million.

“With that we will, in the next few months, begin purchasing land on the Detroit side because it’s the responsibility of the Canadian government in the deal to provide the land to the U.S. government for the purpose of constructing its plaza,” Norton said.

“We also have to purchase land for the I-75 interchanges.”

But Norton said the challenge facing Canadian transportation officials is the timeline.

Late this year, they are expected to begin taking bids for the bridge construction itself.

It involves requiring interested private companies to pledge upward of $1 billion for the work — money the winning firm would later be repaid from toll revenues.

Without the U.S. commitment in hand, Canada could be on the hook for the $1 billion, Norton said.

“In that situation, there would likely be delays,” he said.

“We would likely move back the current timetable, which had bids being requested late this year and evaluated in early 2015, and construction beginning in early 2016.

“If there is a protracted delay with the U.S. funding, at a certain point the timetable shifts and the project doesn’t get completed as hoped in 2020. We could be looking at 2021 or later.”

jlynch@detroitnews.com