A long-awaited new bridge from Ontario to Michigan could be delayed yet again if the U.S. government doesn't soon commit to paying its share of the cost.
That's the stark warning from officials on both sides of the international border, who say there is no time to waste building a vital new crossing for the two countries' busiest land trade route.
The Canadian government is paying the lion's share of the $2.1-billion it will cost to complete the New International Trade Crossing over the Detroit River, which will relieve bottlenecks at the aging Ambassador Bridge. The only portion that the U.S. federal government must cover is a $250-million customs plaza on the Michigan side.
So far, engineering work is proceeding on the project but, if the funds for the plaza are not allocated within the next few months, Ottawa cannot move forward with the next phase and find a company to build the bridge itself. Part of the tender will require the builder to put some of its own money into the project, to be recouped by tolls.
"There has to be traffic for there to be tolls there. There has to be a customs plaza before there can be traffic," said Roy Norton, Canada's consul-general in Detroit, in an interview Sunday. "Until you get clarity or confirmation of [the U.S. government's] intentions, there is concern."
His comments echo those of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who blasted Washington in a meeting with the Detroit Free Press's editorial board Friday.
"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," the paper quoted him as saying. "I wouldn't want to see the rest of the bridge held up over what you might describe as a somewhat difficult-to-understand attitude."
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which would be responsible for the plaza, did not respond to The Globe and Mail's questions about the status of funding Sunday.
A spokeswoman for Transport Canada said diplomats in Washington and Detroit have been meeting with American officials and members of Congress on the matter, and Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt has raised it with her U.S. counterpart.
"We are hopeful that the U.S. government will ultimately fund the U.S. Port of Entry and meet its obligations in this bi-national partnership to build a new crossing at one of North America's most important gateways," Andrea Moritz wrote in an e-mail.
The customs plaza is only the latest bump in the long road to completing the span. The company that owns the Ambassador, controlled by Michigan businessman Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his family, has fought tooth and nail to stop the construction of the competing crossing. The Free Press, citing financial disclosure records, reported Mr. Moroun's company spent $180,000 on Washington lobbyists and that he contributed to the campaigns of Michigan congressmen.
A spokesman for his company did not respond to a request for comment.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has endorsed the bridge plan in principal, but has not yet asked Congress to allocate the funds. Mr. Norton said the coming U.S. federal budget, likely to be tabled in March, would be a good opportunity for Mr. Obama to do this.
And if he doesn't, the economic consequences could be dire.
"It would be calamitous to industry and workers on both sides of the river if the Ambassador were to fail," Mr. Norton said. "There is no time to delay."