Canada to pay for bridge customs plaza, U.S. to operate

Gary Heinlein and David Shepardson
The Detroit News

Canada will pay for the construction of a U.S. customs plaza on a new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor while the U.S. government finances its operations, under a deal announced Wednesday.

A Canadian public-private partnership overseeing the bridge project will pay for building the customs plazas on both sides of the border and the United States will staff, operate and maintain the Detroit customs plaza.

"This arrangement is good for Canada and for Canadians. It ensures that all the elements of the project will ultimately be delivered through a public-private partnership," said Transport Minister Lisa Raitt at the announcement in Ottawa, Ontario. "It also allows Canada and Michigan to move the project forward immediately to its next steps which include further design work and property acquisition on the U.S. side of the border."

Raitt said the proposed span "is of vital importance to the economic prosperity of communities and businesses on both sides of the border." It's one of Canada's top infrastructure projects, she added.

The agreement appears to remove the largest lingering hurdle for the $2.1-billion New International Trade Crossing span over the Detroit River. The publicly financed bridge is scheduled to be built two miles south of the privately owned and operated Ambassador Bridge with a scheduled finish date of 2020.

The Detroit News first reported Wednesday that a deal had been reached. Earlier this month, The News also first reported that an agreement was close after several months of talks.

The Canadian government has agreed to fund construction of the bridge and be repaid for the building of the Detroit customs plaza through toll revenue. Then the U.S. government will need to seek congressional approval for money to operate and staff the Detroit plaza, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said would cost an estimated $100 million the first year and $50 million annually afterward.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in an interview Wednesday that Congress will need to approve the funding for the new customs plaza, but won't have to act until closer to the bridge's completion, scheduled for 2020. She said she didn't think it would be a problem.

"The bridge has to be built first," Stabenow said. "We all want to get this done as soon as possible."

Canada wanted assurances that the United States would staff the customs plaza if it built the facility.

Bridge supporter Gov. Rick Snyder welcomed the agreement.

"I'm appreciative of the work of our partners in Congress and in the Canadian government to ensure that the New International Trade Crossing – important to both of our countries – continues to move forward," Snyder said in a statement. "I will continue to encourage the U.S. government to provide the necessary resources to fund U.S. customs facilities at the NITC project and the Blue Water bridge in Port Huron."

The Obama administration previously said it was difficult to commit an estimated $250 million in the federal budget for building the Detroit plaza because of a congressional prohibition against earmarked money for certain projects.

The key was getting a commitment from the Obama administration to fund the operations and equip the plaza. Stabenow praised the Canadian government for "working creatively with us to solve this last roadblock."

She praised the bridge as key to national security and Michigan's economic future.

"This is really is the final critical step to be able to get this done," Stabenow said.

She said the precise cost of the estimated $250 million to $300 million customs plaza could change before the final design is completed.

Officials from both countries explored other options but with the Obama administration refusing to propose funding and the Republican-led House refusing to add funds for years, there was little choice, supporters said.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a House Budget Committee member, embraced the agreement and pledged to ensure federal funding for the plaza would follow.

"We've overcome hurdle after hurdle to move this project forward, and today's announcement means we are full speed ahead," said Dingell, D-Dearborn. "But the U.S. government must remain committed to doing its part.

"We've never been a nation that sits back and waits for someone else to do our work. We step up, we do our fair share, and we must do what it takes to get this plaza built."

While touring a high-tech plant in Lansing on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters mildly criticized the Obama administration's reluctance to fund more of the U.S. share of the project, but welcomed the deal.

"I certainly would have preferred to have the federal government being there, ... putting up funds for the customs plaza, but I think the important thing right now is that it's moving forward," Peters said.

"The key right now is to have ... a commitment from the federal government to make sure that plaza's fully staffed as is necessary to operate it and continue to expand trade between Canada and the United States," added the Bloomfield Township Democrat, calling the bridge "an incredibly important infrastructure project" for the state and federal governments.

As designed, the bridge will provide direct access between Interstate 75 and Interstate 94 in Detroit and Ontario Highway 401 through a parkway in Windsor. Formal talks between the two countries toward construction of the bridge began a decade ago, and a feasibility study was completed in 2008.

Jim Ellis, an East Lansing commercial truck driver, was ecstatic about the deal and said he can't wait for the new bridge to open.

"Oh, the Ambassador, what a nightmare it was," said Ellis, who doesn't currently make trips into Canada but soon will again. "The deal was just getting on to the bridge — all the traffic and the traffic lights in Windsor."

The crossing between Detroit and Windsor carries more than one-quarter of all merchandise trade between the two countries, currently by way of the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. The two countries estimate goods and services worth an amount approaching $2 billion flow between the U.S. and Canada daily.

The process to build a bridge began in 2001, and a 2004 joint U.S.-Canada study concluded that additional border-crossing capacity was needed for reasons including increasing traffic volume, economic security and national security concerns. The State Department approved a permit for the new bridge in 2013.

Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a required permit for a publicly owned bridge from Detroit to Canada — clearing another key hurdle in the high-profile project.

In addition, a federal judge in Washington in 2014 rejected a legal motion to force the Coast Guard to issue a permit to Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who wanted to build a second span across the Detroit River to handle traffic while it repairs the Ambassador so it can compete with the publicly financed bridge.

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