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U.S. bets Ottawa will fork out more on Windsor bridge

The proposed new bridge linking Windsor and Detroit has jumped through its final regulatory hoop, now that a U.S. federal judge has rejected an injunction that would have barred the U.S. Coast Guard from issuing the necessary construction permit.

Even the private operator of the existing 85-year-old Ambassador Bridge, which had sought the injunction while vainly pursuing its own unapproved bridge scheme, concedes that it may be out of legal manoeuvres to prevent the new span across the Detroit River. But that won't stop the toxic mix of money and politics from further delaying a project that should have been a no-brainer.

The bridge would unclog a key transportation route between Ontario's manufacturing heartland and the major markets of the U.S. Midwest, but its merits are beside the point when set next to the priorities of partisan wrangling in Washington.

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The Obama administration had provided a crucial presidential permit for the project after no fewer than nine federal U.S agencies (and the Americans complain about other countries' bureaucracies!) had given it the green light.

But now comes the hard part: Getting Washington to fork out a mere $250-million (U.S.) to pay for its own customs plaza on the U.S. side of the bridge.

This seems like a small price for a government that loudly proclaims the importance of freer trade and the reduction of cross-border impediments. The problem is that Washington doesn't seem all that eager to back up its words with action, as its oft-delayed decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline shows. At least with the pipeline, there is a groundswell of opposition from environmentalists, which makes it tough on an administration trying to prove it cares about things like climate change and greener energy.

There is no such public antagonism toward a new bridge at North America's busiest border crossing, one that would provide thousands of badly needed construction jobs in battered Michigan and Ontario for several years.

The Canadian government is so anxious to improve the congested conduit between southern Ontario manufacturers and nearby U.S. assembly plants and supply chains that it is already prepared to foot most of the projected price tag of $3.4-billion on both sides of the border. That includes the cost of acquiring the property in Michigan needed for feeder roads and ramps, as well as relocating utilities. The plan is to recoup those expenses through bridge toll revenues.

But Ottawa has understandably drawn a line in the asphalt over paying for another government's customs checkpoint, even if there is some sort of arrangement for reimbursement through tolls.

In Washington, politics always trumps logic, and the Republican-controlled Congress isn't about to throw its support to a bill introduced by a Michigan Democrat to cover the cost of the customs plaza.

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The fact is that Ontario's flagging industrial sector needs the new bridge far more than its U.S. counterpart. Which is why politics-obsessed Washington is in no rush to make it happen. Its attitude could change after the Congressional election this fall, but for now the U.S. administration is betting that the pressure is on Canada to make its offer even better. It's right.

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About the Author
Senior Economics Writer and Global Markets Columnist

Brian Milner is a senior economics writer and global markets columnist. In a long career at The Globe and Mail, he has covered diverse business beats, including international trade, the automotive industry, media, debt markets, banking and the business side of sports. More

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