Howes: Canada's PM rescues MI from its own dysfunction

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Ain't it great to have a friend like Stephen Harper?

The prime minister of Canada comes to town (or Windsor) and acts the rich uncle. He chooses the spot, selects its name, pays for everything and leaves you feeling a little embarrassed, if not ashamed, for how little you contributed.

It should, considering what the sorry spectacle of a new Detroit-to-Windsor span says about the state of us. Metro Detroit will benefit from the jobs and increased trade of a new Gordie Howe International Bridge. Michigan taxpayers will, too; but they won't get a bill, and its elected officials can believe they won't get punished by voters.

A U.S. government with a demonstrated penchant for wild spending happily allows the Canadians to pick up the construction tab for the bridge, the kind of infrastructure needed to speed the flow of trade and more tightly integrate the advanced economies of Michigan and Ontario.

What do the feds do? Agree to staff and fund operations of a new (Canadian-financed) customs plaza on our side of the border. Good thing, because the prospect of a foreign government paying the salaries of U.S. customs agents, too, might be a bridge too far — even for free-loading Americans.

"The Canadians understand how fundamental your economy is to theirs," says Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "We're all dealing in the U.S. with a dysfunctional federal government. It has left the building. States are a mixed bag."

Yes, they are — Michigan included. Need to jam right-to-work legislation through a lame-duck Legislature? Check. Want to dump a grab-bag roads bill on voters and try to change the state constitution in the process? Sure, call the lawmakers in Lansing.

Looking for elected officials to resist pressure from the Ambassador Bridge mogul, Matty Moroun, whose massive investments in the existing span and one he wants to build alongside it are threatened by the Canada-backed Gordie Howe project? Look elsewhere.

A profile in American courage this bridge deal is not. As much as the Snyder-era can claim tighter financial management, tax reform and a successful Detroit bankruptcy, rank politics on the right and the left are poisoning state government's ability to fulfill some of its basic obligations.

The bridge isn't the only manifestation of this dysfunction. The 4-to-1 drubbing of Proposal 1, the roads ballot question, is the latest example of state government's confused priorities when it comes to repairing and building basic infrastructure.

The Canadians get this, of course, and they're turning it to their advantage — and ours, frankly. By paying the bridge bills they call the shots, be it naming rights or a determination to keep another Moroun span from making landfall in Windsor.

"It is a bit unsettling to see Canada take the lead on what should be a major priority for the United States of America," Patrick Anderson, CEO of East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, wrote in an e-mail. "We ought to be able to finance and build our own bridges across rivers that were first spanned nearly a century ago.

"Canada's help is welcome in financing the bridge, but we can't expect them — or the tooth fairy — to pay for our own roads. We have to do that ourselves, and we've sure botched that job recently. This is a welcome development for Michigan, but not a particularly proud moment for US economic policy."

Amen. To understand just how badly botched, take a ride over the Ambassador Bridge. Follow the Route 3 connector to 401, the major artery connecting Windsor to Toronto and points east.

The ribbons of concrete, the new roundabout and more demonstrate longer-term vision, better quality and leadership looking beyond fears of payback in the next election.

Yes, it costs money fraught with political risk. But it's an investment (in the proper use of the word) to quicken the lifeblood of the Canadian economy — and Michigan's.

Nearly half of all the trade between the United States and Canada, valued at roughly $131 billion, flows through Detroit and makes it the busiest U.S. border crossing into Canada, according to Brookings.

That's a geographic and economic prize worth the investment, which is why Uncle Steve and his fellow Canadians are willing to pay the bills. They get it, even if too many in charge around here mostly don't.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at