Straits tunnel panel must see construction bid plan before vote, state says

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Dimondale — A panel tasked with overseeing the construction and operation of a new tunnel to house Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline is expected to concur next month on a request for bid proposals for tunnel construction. 

But the three members of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority have yet to see the request for proposals they're supposed to vote on Oct. 13 — a delay causing some members and activists heartburn. 

The state said its experts have viewed the document on a private server, but authority members won't get a peek until two weeks before the meeting. 

"From our standpoint, yes, we should see it ahead of time ahead of the meeting," said Mike Nystrom, chairman for the authority. "But we also have to rely on our technical experts to tell us that their review was thorough and where the technical details come in."

This is Enbridge's Mackinaw Station for Line 5.

Environmental groups are pushing for a speedy disclosure of the request, which most see as a pivotal part of the estimated four-year $500 million project. Oil and Water Don't Mix submitted a public records request for the document but were denied because the report, as of now, only exists on private online software. 

"We’re less than a month out from them concurring on a hugely important document to the process and the public still hasn’t had any access," said Sean McBrearty, the Michigan legislative and policy director of Clean Water Action.

Enbridge confirmed a public copy of the "technical document" will be made available to the authority board by Oct. 1. 

"The staff of the MCSA has been advising Enbridge for several months on the development of the construction RFP, and have had the opportunity to review the RFP," Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said.  

Enbridge completed the engineering and design phase of the 4-mile tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac in March at which time the company also ended its contract with the Great Lakes Tunnel Constructors — a partnership made up of Japanese tunneling firm Obayashi and Livonia-based Jay Dee Contractors. Enbridge will next turn its efforts to hiring a contractor to build the tunnel. 

A request for proposals is a critical part of that hiring process. 

Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority support staff are reviewing the RFP "to ensure it follows the law and tunnel agreement" on a document platform maintained by Enbridge counsel, said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation. The department provides some staff to the authority. 

"Enbridge is obligated by the Tunnel Agreement to submit the RFP for concurrence by the MSCA prior to advertising it to bidders," Cranson said. "Once it has been submitted for approval, it will be in MSCA possession and made public, likely as part of meeting materials for the next scheduled public meeting." 

About a year ago, Enbridge Energy told the state of Michigan that preliminary designs for construction revealed "significant cost creep" and were nearly double the initial $500 million price tag. At that point, the Canadian oil giant said it would take the project's construction phase back to market at a later date.

Under a 2018 agreement with the state, Enbridge agreed to pay the full cost of the tunnel construction and the placement of a new segment of Line 5 within the tunnel. The state agreement did not list a potential cost for the project, but Enbridge has estimated from the tunnel's inception that it would cost about $500 million.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com