Peters: U.S. must agree to staff, equip Customs plaza

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Sen. Gary Peters says the Obama administration and Congress must approve new Customs enforcement personnel and equipment for a new planned Detroit River bridge crossing — even as the Canadian government is expected to advance the $250 million to build the plaza.

The Bloomfield Township Democrat said he’s been in talks with the administration and Canada to ensure that the Obama administration can staff and equip the plaza.

“At a minimum, we have to have a commitment from the United States government that there will be the personnel there, the equipment will be there, the supplies — so that’s been a big part of negotiations,” Peters told The Detroit News, declining to say how much it would cost to run the plaza. “If the Canadians were just to put up a customs plaza, it doesn’t do any good if there aren’t actually people there.”

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told The Detroit News that a deal was close with Canada to fund the customs plaza needed for a planned $2.1 billion Detroit River bridge crossing. “I think we’re close to resolution on it,” Johnson said. Asked if the Canadian government would pay for the plaza upfront, Johnson said: “The Canadians, the community, I think we’re close.”

Johnson said he believes the Detroit-Windsor bridge will be able to proceed. The publicly financed bridge is scheduled to be built two miles south of the privately financed and operated Ambassador Bridge.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in an interview late Tuesday she expects the Canadian government will agree to finance the U.S. customs plaza and “what has been talked about” is using toll revenue to reimburse the Canadian government for advancing the money. But she hasn’t seen the final agreement.

“I think we should give a big thanks for the Canadians being willing to step up. ... We have a very willing partner,” Stabenow said. “I don’t see other realistic options at this point.”

She said she has been urging use of the toll revenue to get a Detroit customs plaza deal done.

“The devil is always in the details,” Stabenow said, adding there has been discussion of making a formal announcement next month.

Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said Wednesday at a congressional hearing that the administration has been working closely with Canada and was “optimistic” that the bridge project will move forward. He made the remarks in response to Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who noted that the administration had again declined to include funding for the plaza in the budget.

Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper reported late Tuesday that it confirmed that vehicle tolls will be used to pay for the $250 million toll plaza “under a tentative deal worked out between Ottawa, Washington and the state of Michigan.” It cited an unnamed Canadian government source, and said a formal announcement is expected to be made next month.

The Canadian government has not ruled out paying the money up front to ensure it won’t miss a scheduled 2020 completion of the New International Trade Crossing between Windsor and Detroit — a second span over the Detroit River, connecting the two cities. The Canadian government and private contractors are providing at least $1.8 billion of the bridge financing.

Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for Canada transportation minister Lisa Raitt, said Monday that “discussions are ongoing on financing.” “Our government will not let financing affect project timelines,” Kelahear said in a statement sent to The Detroit News.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com