Price to sell Blue Water Bridge? House GOP wants to know for road funds

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Traffic flows over the Blue Water Bridge in 2014.

Lansing — State House Republicans want to know the price tag for the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and plan to ask the Michigan Department of Transportation to solicit bids for the structure. 

The House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee’s proposed budget Thursday will include boilerplate language directing the Department of Transportation to solicit proposals or bids for the international crossing, which is jointly owned by the U.S. and Canada.

The Michigan Department of Transportation did not have an immediate estimate of the bridge’s worth, but said outstanding debt on the bridge is roughly $89.7 million with a final payment set for 2037.

The House's budget boilerplate language also will request similar solicitations for bids for several state-owned small airports, some rest stops and one rail line for transportation funding, said Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

The plan would allow the Legislature “to get an idea of what the market looks like and get a better accounting what assets the state has,” D’Assandro said.

The language is not part of the House’s roads plan, which he expects to be released at a later date, he said.

“Obviously, the state has to fund a lot of priorities every year so it's good to know what kind of assets its sitting on,” D’Assandro said.

The subcommittee is already aware of some parties interested in the bridge, including a group of investment funds, said Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, chairman of the transportation subcommittee. The bridge’s sale remains a possibility, but a serious one, he said.

“I’m all for building bridges, but I think if you had an asset lying around that’s worth half a billion to a billion dollars, I’d rather sell that bridge than force Michigan families to pay more at the gas pump,” he said.

Maddock said he'll explore any options that will sidestep tax increases for residents and check the reach of government agencies. 

"MDOT used to focus on transportation, not bridges or airports or welcome centers," Maddock said. "There’s a lot of things that we’re in the business of that we shouldn’t be in the business of.”

The Port Huron-Sarnia crossing consists of two bridges — the original bridge with three lanes of west-bound traffic into the United States that was renovated in 1999 and a modern bridge opened in 1997 with three lanes of east-bound traffic into Canada. The state of Michigan owns the U.S. portions of the spans, while a Canadian authority owns the Canadian section, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation

There already is a private owner of a key international bridge in Michigan. The Moroun family owns the 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor. 

The Ambassador Bridge is set to get competition from the Gordie Howe International Bridge, a private-public crossing that is being built two miles south. The $4.4 billion project is expected to be completed by 2023.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib cited the Moroun's ownership of the Ambassador Bridge Wednesday as a warning against tapping private interests for public infrastructure. 

"Come to Detroit, and I will show you how selling a bridge to a private owner is a bad, no terrible, idea," said Tlaib, D-Detroit. 

It is not clear if the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Company or one of its affiliated firms is interested in buying the Blue Water Bridge. 

The Blue Water Bridge long ago was supposed to get its customs plaza expanded in a $165 million construction project. But the customs plaza project languished during the Obama administration and remains dormant. 

Local leaders in St. Clair County learned of the plan Wednesday and said it appeared to be a preliminary exploration of how to monetize the twin spans over the St. Clair River.

“I think it is reasonable that the state Legislature would want to look at the value of its asset and see how those assets could be best used for the people of Michigan,” Port Huron City Manager James Freed said.

The bridge certainly is an asset to the community but is ultimately outside of the county’s purview or ownership, said St. Clair County Board Chairman Jeff Bohm, who noted the plan would “get vetted at a much higher pay grade than mine.”

“I guess it’s the old adage, everything’s for sale, even the Blue Water Bridge,” Bohm said.

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