At first blush, the government of Canada is acting like a clumsy, overeager suitor in its efforts to get a new bridge built across the Detroit River. Already on the hook for almost the entire $2-billion cost of the link, Ottawa has now said, to keep the project moving forward, it is going to start buying the necessary land on the Michigan side of the river. And that’s the right move. The Harper government recognizes the project’s critical value and importance: This is the world’s busiest border crossing. It’s Canada’s most vital trade link, and it’s overcrowded. A standoffish U.S. federal government is coming off badly, and holding things up.
Michigan and Ottawa signed an agreement for the building of the New International Trade Crossing in 2012, under which Canada will pay virtually all the costs – bridge construction, on-ramp construction and land acquisition. Washington is paying only for a customs plaza on the U.S. side. But this isn’t a case of Canadian taxpayers subsidizing Americans: The bridge is supposed to be user-pay. Ottawa will recoup its costs through toll collection.
It’s up to the Michigan Department of Transportation to handle the land acquisitions for the customs plaza and be reimbursed by Canada. But a bizarre reluctance on the part of Washington to budget for the customs plaza was putting the project’s schedule in jeopardy. Michigan can’t go ahead with the land purchases until there is money for the plaza, so Ottawa is stepping in to buy the land directly and keep the bridge’s planned 2020 opening on track.
A new bridge is critical to the growing amount of trade moving across the Detroit River every day. Ottawa understands this; so does Michigan and – in theory, at least – Washington. The U.S. State Department and the White House have both given final approvals for the NICT’s construction. The failure of Washington to see this deal through is reaching absurd levels, but in some ways it’s not surprising. Canada, the smaller party in this dance, is proportionately more dependent on this trade link. A new bridge isn’t a priority in Washington. In Ottawa, it’s urgent and should be.