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Bridge going nowhere: Detroit-Windsor crossing lost in a broken political process

No less an economic theorist than Adam Smith believed government could do few things more important than building roads.

A robust transportation infrastructure "account the greatest of all improvements," Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations. "They encourage the cultivation of the remote…They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce."

From the Erie Canal to the Transcontinental Railroad to the United States' Interstate Highway System, history has proven Smith's theory about transportation correct.

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It is, therefore, perplexing that the plan to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor remains politically contentious. Or, I should say, remains politically contentious on the U.S. side of the border. Canada understands perfectly the bridge's necessity.

Ironic that so many Americans scoff at our northern neighbours supposed socialism (single-payer health care and all that) but yet we free-marketeer Yanks are ignoring the time-tested advice of capitalism's founder.

The latest hiccup for the new Detroit-Windsor bridge is when or if the U.S. government will allocate funds to build the crossing's Customs' plaza. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claims the Obama Administration is dragging its heels.

On its surface, Snyder's claim that "the U.S. government has largely taken a position that they don't think they should pay anything for a facility for the United States government" is a little disingenuous.

Obama has made infrastructure improvements a cornerstone of his agenda. His 2009 stimulus package including millions for road improvements and upgrading passenger rail infrastructure.

And let's not forget that Michigan's own refusal to pay for its portion of the bridge led a frustrated Canada to throw up its collective hands and just front us the money for Michigan's share of the bridge.

Even then, neither Snyder nor his predecessor Jennifer Granholm could get state lawmakers to sign off on the project. Snyder eventually had to resort to some Constitutional sleight of hand to unilaterally approve the bridge.

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As the Customs' plaza goes, it's entirely possible the only thing holding up this aspect of the bridge is normal legislative scheduling. The U.S. federal budget process begins in earnest in about a month, and while the Obama Administration has been mum about the dust-up, they've never expressed anything but support for the bridge.

Snyder's comments may be nothing more than a warning shot across Washington's bow, a prudent reminder that the bridge can't be allowed to slip through the legislative cracks in 2014.

It's also possible that Snyder used to issue to take a free shot at Obama and shore up his right flank in advance of Michigan's gubernatorial election.

Snyder is unlikely to face a primary challenge as he seeks re-election. However, Lt. Governor Brian Calley's spot on the ticket is expected to be challenged at this summer's Michigan Republican convention. The seriousness of that challenge is unknown, but no Republican has ever lost points with the GOP base for blaming something on Obama. Why not, if you're Snyder, use the bridge as a kind of wedge issue to show your administration is thoroughly anti-Obama?

Unfortunately, it's also impossible to dismiss Snyder's concern has simple political posturing because nothing about the bridge project has been simple.

Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, desperate to keep his Detroit-Windsor bridge monopoly by any means necessary, has seen to that.

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Moroun's political activity largely focuses on politicians to the right of Rick Snyder and includes buckets of money of anti-Obama groups like Americans for Prosperity. While Moroun is pragmatic enough to play both sides against the middle, it seems unlikely that Obama is taking a dive for the Ambassador Bridge owner.

However, Moroun doesn't necessarily need overt collusion from the President. He didn't grow the family business from a couple of gas stations and few trucks into a multi-billion dollar commercial empire without playing the angles.

There is much truth in Snyder's assertion that the U.S. government (or any governmental unit in the U.S., really) doesn't like paying for itself. That's largely thanks to people like Matty Moroun, who fund a political movement bent on making government so small that you could "drown it in a bathtub."

The result is a political reality where an obviously appropriate public project, like building another road at the busiest commercial crossing with the United States' most important trading partner, is held hostage by a manufactured scarcity of resources that potentially pits funding the bridge's Customs plaza against equally valid projects in other parts of the country.

"Golly, we just can't afford it," say politicians who just happen to receive campaign contributions from men like Matty Moroun, who profit when the government "just can't afford" to undertake the basic functions of government.

Belief in a smaller, rather than expansive, government is a perfectly valid philosophy. Unfortunately, as the limbo in which the Detroit-Windsor bridge seems stuck demonstrates, so much of the small government rhetoric (at least on the U.S. side of the border) has little to do with philosophy and everything to do with protecting the interest of a powerful few.

Rick Snyder is correct. The new bridge is too important to too many people on both sides of the border. It can't be allowed to get lost to a broken political process.

Jeff Wattrick writes and blogs for Deadline Detroit. He is on Twitter at@Woodwardsfriend.

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