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Neil Reynolds
Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds

A bridge too far? Not for Canada Add to ...

The Detroit Free Press was fulsome the other day in its praise of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s adroit handling of the Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), the formal designation of the new bridge that will – perhaps by 2016 – connect Detroit and Windsor four kilometres downstream from the gridlocked Ambassador Bridge. The Michigan legislature wouldn’t pay for its up-front share of $500-million? Not to worry. Mr. Harper has taken care of it.

With literally free money, the newspaper said, Canada has given the United States a 21st-century border crossing between Windsor and Detroit – “the most important border crossing on the planet.” Further, Michigan gets to count Canada’s surrogate funding as its own in qualifying for federal U.S. infrastructure money. In metaphorical terms, Mr. Harper has thus given Michigan a first-class ticket for a global flight, “then thrown in the frequent-flier points.”

Why would a Canadian prime minister do this? Why would Canada front all the money, and incur all the risks, to build a bridge that seems more likely to boost Michigan’s economic prospects than Ontario’s?

With creative financing, Canada will get back its investment in due course – decades from now. But Mr. Harper’s assistance to an essentially impoverished American state speaks for itself. Simply put, Mr. Harper will not permit this project to fail. The trade relationship between Canada and the United States is the most important in the world – and the Windsor-Detroit border crossing sustains it.

Canadians understand this, although perhaps not with the clarity that Mr. Harper understands it. While Canada now pursues free-trade agreements around the world, the Prime Minister is under no illusion about the relative importance of them. As Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said in this context: “If al-Qaeda had understood [the importance of the Windsor-Detroit crossing], it would have done more damage to the U.S. economy by destroying this bridge than the World Trade Center in New York.”

Mr. Harper made sure that no one could doubt his own unequivocal assessment of the importance of the Windsor-Detroit connection. “This is the single most important piece of infrastructure our government will complete while I am Prime Minister,” he said – perhaps, with these words, anticipating success in the next federal election. “We are prepared to do whatever it takes. Make no mistake: Whatever battles lie ahead, this bridge is going to get done.” (Mr. Harper presumably meant this warning for U.S. billionaire Manuel Moroun, the litigious owner of the Ambassador Bridge, who purchased it in 1979 from another private owner and has singlehandedly blocked the construction of a new bridge for the past decade. At any rate, it is hard to imagine any significant political opposition to the DRIC within Canada.)

For its part, The Detroit Free Press gives the credit for the new bridge to what it describes as Mr. Harper’s extraordinary “Canadian vision” – a strategic insight that recognizes the evolving importance of the Windsor-Detroit crossing. Yes, the bridge will “widen the pipeline between Detroit and Windsor” and end the idle-time gridlock on the Ambassador Bridge. But it will do more, too, by expediting the movement of goods between Asia and Mexico, between Europe and Latin America. From this perspective, the DRIC’s importance transcends its North American role and becomes a global hub for international trade.

Tough times have always been good times for heroic infrastructure projects. Many of the great bridges in North American date back to the Great Depression – with the art-deco aesthetic to prove it. Although the Ambassador opened earlier, in 1929, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1936, New York’s George Washington Bridge in 1931, the Thousand Islands (Ivy Lea) Bridge in 1937 – an awesome achievement accomplished in 16 months – and the Blue Water Bridge (linking Sarnia, Ont., and Port Huron, Mich.) in 1938.

In fact, New York financier Joseph Bower built Ambassador1 all on his own through hard times. This was private investment at its best. Ambassador2 achieves the same results through the combination of bonds, grants and tolls – almost all of which will be repaid to the government in due course. Let’s hope the Harper bridge embodies the inspired architecture and design of its great predecessors.

The United States trades more with Europe than with Canada. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story and in Monday's original print version.

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