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Washington — The head of Homeland Security said Wednesday the Obama administration may propose funding an expanded customs plaza at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, a move that would be a significant shift in policy.

Michigan Democrats have expressed frustration that the administration has refused to fund customs plazas in the state. In February, Canada agreed to fund construction of a new customs plaza for a planned Detroit River bridge crossing after the White House refused to pay for it. The Canadians will be repaid through toll revenue.

The move irked U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, who thought she had a commitment from the Obama administration to fund the customs plaza in her district four to five years ago. The Blue Water Bridge, which links Port Huron with Sarnia, Ontario, is awaiting a $165 million construction project that has been delayed.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a Senate hearing Wednesday that the Obama administration wants to fund the new plaza in Port Huron — the fourth busiest crossing point in the United States in terms of value of shipments — to reduce backups. It also plans to pay for stationing new personnel when the Detroit bridge opens in 2020 or later.

“Well, we've got to prioritize ... it, and I think that — look, I think that building the customs plaza for the second bridge in Detroit has got to be a key priority,” Johnson said. “Ultimately I do want to get to the Blue Water Bridge, and that's something we ought to take a look at, perhaps in next year's budget.”

Johnson told Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Townshoip, that the need in Port Huron is there. He has visited the bridge and seen the traffic backups.

“I do know that a couple of years ago or maybe even more recently than that we added some stacking in the toll plazas to try to expedite the traffic across the bridge. And I've seen what the town did to prepare for the expanded customs plaza space,” Johnson said.

“They literally demolished buildings to prepare for the expanded area. And for lack of funding, we're not able to get there. It is — I think that the case for expanded customs capability at the Blue Water Bridge is clearly there. And we've got to prioritize and I'm pleased that we're funding the personnel for the new customs plaza in Detroit, for the new bridge there. That is clearly a very compelling case.”

Peters urged Johnson to move on the Port Huron project.

“Because certainly the bridge in Detroit is still a few years away. It's not built yet,” Peters said.

“I don't want to get in a situation where it's Port Huron versus Detroit,” Peters told Johnson. “We have the No. 2 busiest border crossing in the country and the No. 4. When you have two of the five, we need to do both.

“And Port Huron is ready to go now, so I'd certainly appreciate your comments and hope that we can push that to the top of the list as a border crossing in desperate need.”

House Homeland Security Committee Vice Chair Miller said in February she found it “more than a bit frustrating” to learn of a U.S.-Canada financing deal on the “still-nonexistent” Detroit-Windsor bridge “while we still have no forward movement" in Port Huron.

Peters last month proposed and got approved an amendment to the budget “to create a deficit-neutral reserve fund to support increased trade and travel, including conducting construction and increased staffing at ports of entry.”

Peters used the hearing to press the case about how delayed funding has hurt Port Huron and Michigan.

“In fact, the city of Port Huron had some assurances from the federal government that this plaza was going to be expanded and enhanced,” he said. “They acquired property. They demolished property, which had an impact on their tax base, as they prepared the land for that expansion. ... The land continues to sit idle and it continues to be an economic drag on Michigan, on the city of Port Huron, and is really unjustified in my mind.”

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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