DETROIT — Dangling the prospect of job creation in a region swamped by high unemployment, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and other leaders from the U.S. and Canada are urging state lawmakers to allow Michigan to enter a partnership to build a new international bridge.
The clock is ticking as the state Legislature faces a June 1 deadline to approve joining the $5.3 billion Detroit River International Crossing project between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
The legislation would permit Michigan's Transportation Department to enter into a relationship with Canada and a private sector project developer. The new bridge would be publicly owned and take up to five years to build.
A combination of federal funds, bonds and $100 million in state transportation dollars would be needed to build Michigan's portion of the bridge. User fees would repay the debt.
The Detroit River International Crossing, the public-private group behind the project, expects it to lead to the creation of 10,000 construction jobs in Michigan and 25,000 full-time positions over the next 20 years.
"This is all about jobs," Granholm told reporters Friday during a press event in downtown Detroit. "All opportunities are going to be lost unless this crossing is built. It's a bridge between the two countries and a bridge to Michigan's future."
Standing in the way are the owners of the 80-year-old Ambassador Bridge. Billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun has claimed in a federal lawsuit that U.S. and Canadian officials are stalling his efforts to build a second, twin span across the river.
The U.S. Coast Guard has rejected his application for a permit. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis said Friday that operators of the Ambassador Bridge also have not submitted complete environmental applications to Canadian officials for a second span.
Moroun's new span would be about two miles northeast of the proposed government bridge.
Ambassador Bridge operators have said traffic along the old bridge has decreased over the past decade and that the crossing cannot support two bridges.
"The state of Michigan and Canada want to take 70 percent of our business," said Moroun's wife, Nora. "This is all Canada wanting to own our crossing."
The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel are the primary Detroit river crossings between the U.S. and Canada. The border is considered one of the busiest trade corridors in the world, with more than 40 percent of U.S. trade with Canada passing through the area.
Granholm said 58 percent of all Michigan trade is with Canada, which translated in 2009 to a $43.8 billion investment. That relationship represents 220,000 Michigan jobs, said Granholm, who is expected to sign the legislation if passed by lawmakers.
Officials supporting the Detroit River International Crossing project fear that expansion of a bridge between western New York and Canada will bite into that trade.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, said he would work to sway fellow party members in the Michigan Legislature to support the Detroit River International Crossing — or DRIC — bridge.
"It was made very clear to me that a second span would not be welcome in downtown Windsor — congestion, pollution," Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said. "If it's not going there, then the DRIC is the only game in town, or we lose out to New York."
Patterson, a friend of Matty Moroun, said 6,000 of the 10,000 construction jobs that stand to be created by the government bridge likely would go to people living or working in his county.
Detroit residents also stand to gain work from the project, said Bing who added that the city will make sure workers receive training to work on the DRIC bridge.
Nearly a third of working-age adults in Detroit are unemployed.
Michigan's unemployment rate is at 14.1 percent.
Fewer industries have been hit as hard by the national economic downturn as construction trades, said Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, president of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.
He urged lawmakers to "just put unemployed people first" when voting on the project.
"Do you know how long it's been for a lot of these individuals since they've received a paycheck?" Gleason said Friday. "How long it's been since they've been covered underneath a health plan?"
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