Construction should begin on a second bridge between Windsor and Detroit by 2015, and the project to broaden Canada's most important trade artery should be completed by 2020, officials say, now that U.S. President Barack Obama has given the crossing his blessing.
A presidential permit was issued Friday for what the Canadian government calls this country's No. 1 infrastructure priority – expanding a vital business conduit to the United States – and the announcement means a green light for the multibillion-dollar project.
White House approval was the final major political signoff needed for the Detroit River International Crossing, a span the Canadian government has been campaigning to build for the past decade. The U.S. Coast Guard must also give its assent to the final engineering design – including the span's clearance – but both American and Canadian officials say this approval is not in doubt.
Canada has been waiting for the presidential permit since last spring, when the Harper government struck a deal with Michigan governor Rick Snyder to build an alternative crossing to the existing Ambassador Bridge, which currently carries a quarter of the goods traded between Canada and the United States each year.
News of the presidential go-ahead, unveiled Friday in Detroit, now sets in motion a flurry of activity surrounding the megaproject.
"This allows us now to spend money, on the design and other things," said Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. "It would have been imprudent for us to proceed with design work if we hadn't got the permit."
The bridge will be built and operated by a private contractor that will recoup its investment through tolls. The bridge project now proceeds to the selection of a contractor. And the United States must acquire land on the American side of the future span.
The only risk to the timetable is legal action by the owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge, who oppose a competing span and have waged a nasty campaign to thwart the project, one that drew public condemnation from Canada's chief diplomat in Detroit last fall. "In no developed country have I ever seen such blatant and comprehensive efforts by a single special interest to bend an entire population to its will," Canada's Consul-General Roy Norton told a Detroit-area audience last October.
Canadian government sources said Friday they believe the long-awaited presidential permit took as much time as it did because the State Department was carefully assembling a legal defence of the decision in anticipation of court challenges from owners of the Ambassador Bridge.
Detroit billionaire Matty Moroun, whose company owns the bridge, has filed a suit in U.S. federal court trying to thwart the span. He claims a "perpetual and exclusive franchise right" to operate the existing Detroit-Windsor crossing free of competition from another span and says the new crossing would destroy the value of the Ambassador Bridge's franchise.
Mr. Doer said the announcement Friday suggests Washington is not concerned about its authority to allow a second bridge. "If the State Department was worried about that lawsuit, we wouldn't have got a presidential permit" Friday, he said.
The Canadian government has gone to great lengths to get this bridge built. Ambassador Bridge supporters in the Michigan legislature refused to allow the state to spend money on the project. To get around this, the Canadian government will pay $550-million to build Michigan's share of the road approaching the new bridge on the Detroit side – an amount to be repaid in toll revenue.
Recently, the Harper government passed legislation that exempts the new Windsor-Detroit bridge from a slew of environmental laws in order to shield it from any legal action U.S. opponents of the project might launch.
Mr. Moroun, chief executive officer of the private company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, has said a second one is not needed right now because traffic volumes on his span are down 40 per cent from before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Canadian government said it anticipates Mr. Moroun or allies would launch legal action in Canada challenging environmental approvals for the new international crossing – and that is why it is heading him off.
Legislation sandwiched inside an omnibus budget bill last year said the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act and big parts of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act "do not apply to the construction of the bridge, parkway or any related work."
The Tories insisted at the time that companies building the bridge and related interchanges will be expected to comply with "the intent of all federal laws pertaining to environmental protection" and file action plans to the relevant Conservative ministers.
The government said it already conducted an extensive environmental assessment study of the bridge project in co-ordination with the United States and Ontario.
The new crossing would be built about three kilometres south of the Ambassador Bridge, which has been operating since 1929.
The new bridge is expected to cost nearly $1-billion and will be privately financed by the company that builds it. Both countries, however, must put in place customs plazas and ramps and connecting roads – infrastructure that will cost about $2.5-billion.