What do you do if you lose 25 percent of your population in a decade, bringing your city to a 100-year low, and you have a perfectly good private bridge? Well, why not have the taxpayers build a new $5.3 billion bridge using public money! It may sound strange but that is exactly what a combination of unions, government officials, and businesses are trying to do in Michigan. The project is called the Detroit River Intentional Crossing (DRIC), currently being promoted as the New International Trade Crossing, and would connect Southeast Michigan to Canada. The problem is there is already a privately owned bridge -- therefore no cost to taxpayers -- two miles away called the Ambassador Bridge.
Michigan does not have the funds to pay for their portion of the bridge and would need to take out a $550 million dollar loan from Canada. The loan could then qualify for 80 percent to 20 percent federal transportation matching funds, putting Uncle Sam on the hook for $2.2 billion. While capacity enhancements are needed to alleviate Detroit-Windsor border congestion in the long-run, the government has no positive role to play.
The owners of the Ambassador Bridge have already spent $500 million to prepare a new crossing and have pledged another $500 million (of private funds) to create another span. If the DRIC project is to proceed, it will almost certainly crowd out the private expansion project led by the Ambassador's owners, meaning that taxpayers will be paying for something previously provided by a private company.
Furthermore, twinning the Ambassador Bridge is by far the most economical method to increase bridge capacity over the Detroit River. The section of the river that the Ambassador crosses is narrower than the section proposed for the DRIC crossing, which lowers costs. There are also existing and nearly complete high-capacity connections to U.S. Interstates, another cost savings.
Proponents of the government bridge claim the Ambassador Bridge does cost the taxpayers something. They argue that one cannot call the bridge free because it is a toll bridge. Forget for a minute the assumption that all taxpayers must subsidize services only some use. The cost of construction for the DRIC is $194 for your typical Michigan family, which will be paid for in taxes as well as tolls. The Ambassador Bridge toll is currently four dollars, so if the government really wanted to subsidize travel between the U.S. and Canada, it could give vouchers for 48 crossings to every family in Michigan. Of course, the DRIC would also be tolled -- likely by a private firm -- which is why this supposed defense of "free" bridges from nefarious private bridge companies is completely nonsensical.
With reality against them, DRIC supporters are claiming the bridge needs to be built because it will create jobs. This is a typical rationale used to support pork barrel projects that cost taxpayers billions but add little to no long-term benefits. Michigan does need jobs. The state's unemployment rate has been among the worst in the nation for years. But what Michigan needs is real jobs, not make-work.
Jobs and lives will actually be destroyed by construction of the new bridge. DRIC would clear around 300 acres of residential neighborhoods, forcing families, business, and churches to relocate. Lawmakers are grasping at anything that will provide employment, but in their zeal to "do something," they will do more harm than good. Jobs created by the private sector that do not force people out of their homes, such as the ones created by the twinning of the Ambassador Bridge, are the answer to Michigan's employment problem.
With all the arguments, there are still many unanswered questions. Jake Davison from Americans For Prosperity–Michigan, one of the groups leading the effort against the DRIC, asks, "Who will set and collect the tolls, Canada or the U.S.? Does Canada have the first claim to the toll revenue or the private investor -- and where does that leave Michigan? What percent of jobs on the DRIC will go to Michigan workers and companies?"
So far, these questions have not been answered and the DRIC is still in the planning stages. Government should not compete with private industry and lawmakers should not make taxpayers pay for duplicative services. Michigan does not have the money to build the bridge and the federal government is running massive debts. Either way, it is quite clear that neither the state nor the country can afford the DRIC and both should avoid amassing more foreign-held debt. If you don't believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.
(Marc Scribner contributed to this article.)