U.S. says deal near to build Detroit bridge plaza

David Shepardson and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Washington — The Obama administration’s top homeland security official and Michigan’s senior U.S. senator said Tuesday that a deal is close to fund a $250 million customs plaza needed for a planned $2.1 billion Detroit River bridge crossing.

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.

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’s 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.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson, confirmed Tuesday that the Obama administration is in talks with the Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper about how to finance the Detroit toll plaza.

“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.

Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday that Johnson’s comments were a “positive statement.” The governor has criticized the Obama administration in the past for not making the customs plaza a budget priority.

“We’re still continuing to have a positive dialogue with the United States government about them contributing,” Snyder told reporters in Lansing.

Tuesday’s developments came after the Obama administration released its budget plan Monday. That blueprint did not include money for the Detroit 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.

Stabenow would prefer the federal government pay for the Detroit customs plaza, but she faulted Congress for not investing more in infrastructure.

“This is jobs for Michigan and Canadians. This is about our homeland security and as well as commerce,” she said. “It’s past time to get this bridge built.”

Snyder, a Republican, took a rare political shot Tuesday at President Barack Obama, a Democrat, when asked about the bridge at a conference of Lansing advocacy groups.

“I don’t know what happened, but the president tends to have forgotten to put that specifically in the budget he just came out with,” Snyder told members of the Michigan Society of Association Executives. “Hopefully, we can remind him that (it) probably should be there, along with the Blue Water Bridge (in Port Huron). There was some customs work that was talked about years ago that was never fulfilled.”

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority is hiring staff and recently inked a six-year contract with an engineering consultant. Some have suggested Canada could fund the plaza and be repaid out of toll proceeds.

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.”

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

Raitt said last year the new bridge needs to be built as a complement to the 86-year-old Ambassador Bridge to ensure the smooth flow of billions of dollars in trade and their associated jobs.

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

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


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