Officials hail Gordie Howe bridge groundbreaking

Blake Alsup Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — Touted as a milestone in binational relations, officials from the United States and Canada celebrated the start Tuesday of construction preparation for the Gordie Howe International Bridge, an international crossing that has surmounted decades of legal and political challenges. 

U.S. and Canadian officials break ground on the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project.

Canada is the largest market for U.S. exports, taking in 15 percent of American goods and services worth $337 billion annually. Detroit and Windsor constitute the busiest trade crossing along the U.S.-Canada border, with more than one-fourth of all goods exchanged between the countries crossing  the Detroit River- via the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel-  to get to its final destination. 

On Tuesday,  government officials from Washington, Ottawa, Lansing, Detroit and Windsor gathered in a weedy, dusty lot in the Delray neighborhood to mark the launch of  work on the Detroit site of the bridge. The work is in preparation for full-scale construction of the bridge expected to start as soon as the first week of October. Along with the bridge, there will be a 167-acre U.S. customs plaza that will spread from the bridge’s footprint. 

"Every Michigander should thank every Canadian," said Gov. Rick Snyder, who played a key role in keeping the deal going at a time when the Republican-led Michigan Legislature refused to fund its half of the project. Snyder helped forge a deal in which Canada is paying to build the bridge, and the U.S. customs plaza,  and expects to recoup its investment through vehicle tolls. The bridge will be owned by the Canadian government and the state of Michigan.

Snyder said U.S-Canadian relations goes through "ups and downs," but the bridge will be an enduring symbol of two nation's partnership. The bridge is expected to have a 125-year lifespan.  

"After more than seven years of hard work, today we broke ground on what will be a thriving legacy named for a legend," Snyder said, referring to the former Detroit Red Wing hockey great. "Gordie Howe represented the best of Canada and the United States."

Canadian Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi described the Howe bridge as a "major milestone."

"This is a very important crossing between Canada and the U.S. Billions of dollars worth of trades cross through this corridor," said Sohi.

Many officials declared Tuesday that the project had overcome all legal obstacles that could kill it, but the private owners of the nearby Ambassador Bridge still are attempting to thwart the plan. The Ambassador Bridge, about two miles east of the Howe bridge, is owned by Manuel "Matty" Moroun. Moroun is a billionaire who, along with his son Matthew,  control trucking and logistics firms in the United States and abroad. 

The Morouns have made 25 legal challenges to halt the Howe bridge, officials said earlier this month.  All of the challenges have failed, officials said. So did a 2012 Michigan ballot measure, for which they spent an estimated $50 million to support, that was aimed at thwarting, or at least delaying, the project. 

The Morouns have not given up. Last month, representatives for the Moroun family bought a commercial on Fox News, urging President Donald Trump to revoke the permit to build the publicly owned bridge based on Trump's "America First" policies.

On hand at Tuesday's groundbreaking was the Trump-appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft. She praised the Howe project and said Trump has spoken out in support of the Howe bridge in the past. 

Another potential wrinkle is Trump's ongoing trade fight with Canada, which includes tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. That could potentially drive up the price to cost to build the bridge. A tariff is a tax, or duty, charged on imported or exported goods. 

It's not clear what those tariffs could mean for the Gordie Howe bridge, said Canadian minister Sohi. 

"It's very disappointing the U.S. has imposed tariffs. It's going to have an impact on jobs and including the cost of infrastructure projects," he said. But the issue could be resolved quickly, he said. 

The Ambassador Bridge owners seek their own expansion. Last fall, the bridge owners gained approval from the Canadian federal government to build a second span next to the existing bridge. The approval was a major hurdle that Manuel Moroun needed to clear for a new six-lane span. The approval comes with a list of conditions, including acquiring more Windsor properties and demolishing the Ambassador Bridge within five years of the replacement span opening.

The planned Gordie Howe bridge across the Detroit River will be the longest "cable-stayed" bridge in North America at 2,798 feet,  A cable-stayed bridge has one or more towers from which cables support the bridge deck. A distinctive feature of such bridges is the cables form a fan-like pattern. The span will connect Detroit and Windsor by linking Interstate 75 and Interstate 96 in Michigan with the new extension of Highway 401 in Ontario.

Six lanes are planned, including a pedestrian and bicycle path. 

Earlier estimates pegged the cost of building the bridge at $2.1 billion, but recent Canadian press reports say the estimate may have climbed to $4.8 billion. An earlier estimate for the bridge's completion was 2022.  

The Delray neighborhood already has been overhauled to make way for the bridge. About three years ago, the state began to buy out homeowners and businesses in order to relocate them. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation has ownership or control over 636 parcels, which has led to the relocations of 229 homes and close to 90 businesses. About 255 structures have been demolished and 4,700 trees cleared, along with several football field-size areas of debris.

About 97 percent of the property needed for the bridge work has been secured, state officials said earlier this month.

A rendering of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will be the longest cable-stay bridge in North America at 853 meters long.

Earlier this month, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority announced the winning development team, made up of eight businesses from across the globe, who will build and operate the bridge.

In the coming months, the bridge authority, which is run by the Canadian government, will negotiate the final contract with the development team. The cost of the project, design details and expected construction schedule will be announced by the end of September, officials said. 

The cost for the advance construction work on the site that is starting now will "not exceed $50 million" said bridge authority spokesman Mark Butler.  Advance construction includes getting the site ready for the deep underground foundations that will support the bridge.  

Former Delray resident Debra Williams has seen the project affect the area where she grew up. She lived in the southwest Detroit neighborhood for 63 years and moved in 2010 due to the decline of the area, she said. 

“We are standing on what was once the playground of Cary Elementary School,” said Williams on Tuesday, referring to the site of the groundbreaking. “Just a stone’s throw on the other side of the fence was my church that I grew up in.” The church moved as part of the buyouts for the bridge project, according to Williams.

She said the project has been good for some and bad for others. “Everybody wasn’t bought out, but everybody is impacted and a lot of people made sacrifices like our church, like the other families that have moved away,” Williams said.

“We understand progress and our whole thought was not so much fighting progress, but making sure people are taken care of and given the quality of life.”

Bridge officials will host a public open house Thursday from 3-7 p.m about the plans at Historic Fort Wayne, 6325 West Jefferson Ave., in Detroit. General presentation times are at 3:30 p.m and 5:45 p.m.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN