Obama again snubs money for Detroit bridge

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Obama administration again declined to dedicate funding to build two Michigan bridge customs plazas, and renewed efforts to kill the A-10 plane that supports hundreds of jobs at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County.

President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion budget proposal, unveiled Monday, was a mixed bag for Michigan. It called for $100 million for a science research facility in East Lansing and $69 million to modernize Detroit’s historic federal courthouse.

But the Democratic president proposed cutting $50 million from a Great Lakes cleanup fund and seeks to end certain sports-related tax breaks that could boost a major Detroit project.

For the second straight year, Obama did not include $250 million for a Detroit customs plaza on the New International Trade Crossing, a $2.1 billion project that Canada is mostly financing. Gov. Rick Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said the continued lack of funding for the customs plaza is “disappointing.”

“All stakeholders to this critical infrastructure project, including Michigan, Canada and the federal government, are engaged in ongoing conversations about financing the construction, operation and maintenance of the customs plaza,” Wurfel said in an email to The Detroit News.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, the Bloomfield Township Democrat who has spearheaded Michigan’s effort to get Detroit bridge funding, said Monday he was “very disappointed” by Obama’s decision but will continue to “pursue all options to ensure funding for construction and staffing of the customs plaza.”

The Obama administration has said Congress needs to decide whether to fund plazas, but Congress faces restrictions on “earmarks” setting aside funding for specific customs projects.

The president’s budget proposal funds some Michigan priorities, including $100 million for a Michigan State University project called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $730 million physics research facility that began construction last year. It is projected to create 5,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent positions.

“We will continue to keep pushing the envelope in terms of cutting-edge facilities,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters.

The research facility, known as FRIB, is expected to open between 2020 and 2022, and produce rare isotopes that are no longer found on Earth. Scientists around the world are involved in the study of rare isotopes, which could help answer scientific questions about the evolution of the universe and develop uses for diagnosing and curing diseases.

The budget also calls for $68.8 million in upgrades to the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit, the third phase of a project that includes the replacement or repair of major heating and air conditioning system parts. The courthouse last year won $40.5 million toward the modernization effort.

Opened in 1934, the courthouse has hosted historic events, including the Detroit bankruptcy case and the trial of the Nigerian man who was sentenced to life in prison for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009.

Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress in November and will likely approve a much different budget than what the president is proposing. It is unclear whether they will try to insert the Michigan bridge projects into their budget bill.

The international authority created to build the Detroit bridge, which is to be two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge, is moving forward with engineering work. Douglas George, the Canadian consulate general in Detroit, said Monday his country is not going to let the funding impasse in Washington “slow down our progress on the bridge.”

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority is hiring staff and recently inked a six-year contract with an engineering consultant as Canadian officials remain committed to opening a new bridge to traffic by 2020.

“The Canadian government is proceeding with the project,” George told The Detroit News. “We’re hoping that the U.S. will catch up and fund the customs plaza.”

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, has similarly been frustrated by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to fund a $165 million customs plaza expansion for the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.

In March 2014, Miller wrote to Snyder, suggesting he consider creating a public-private partnership to help gain funding to complete the Blue Water Bridge plaza.

“This is a project that has been analyzed, studied and debated for over 10 years, and it is time that we seek alternate solutions,” she said in the letter to Snyder.

On the proposed end of the A-10 airplane, a deal struck by Congress in December saved 18 A-10 planes at Selfridge. Under the agreement, the Pentagon couldn’t get rid of the planes but could reduce flying time for active duties — but not for the planes at Selfridge in Harrison Township.

“The A-10, without question, provides the best close air support for our troops in combat,” Miller said in a statement. “The fact is, we currently do not have an aircraft that can replace the A-10, and, until we do, I will continue to fight any effort to divest the fleet and put our combat troops in danger.”

Like last year, the administration wants to cut the Great Lakes environmental fund — by $50 million to $250 million — for efforts to clean up pollution and restore fish and wildlife habitats.

Despite Obama’s request last year to cut lakes grants to $275 million, Congress kept funding at $300 million. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, co-chairwoman of the Great Lakes Task Force, said “we need to continue to invest in the health of our Great Lakes and waterways for years to come.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said its focus for cleanup money next year would be on “reducing phosphorus contributions from agricultural and urban lands that contribute to harmful algal blooms and other water quality impairments” like the one that fouled drinking water for 400,000 people in northwest Ohio and Michigan’s Monroe County in August.

On another front, the Obama administration is striking out into the sports world in a bid to end certain tax breaks. It wants to eliminate by the end of this year tax-exempt financing of professional sports stadiums. That proposal could affect Detroit because Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has proposed a new $450 million stadium that would include state and local financing.

In another move that could hit University of Michigan and other college sports fans in the pocketbook, the White House would like to end the 80 percent tax credit on the “seat licensing” fee that fans must pay to buy some seats.

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.